Saturday, September 02, 2006

Horace Annesley Vachell, “Pals”

Of all the forgotten, lost-to-the-dustbin-of-history genres, the one I think I miss the most is the backstager. The reason it’s been lost, of course, is that the theatre is no longer the cultural force it once was; film and stories about Hollywood have taken its place. But there’s something fine, humble, and often sweet even though trite, about the old understudy-makes-good type of story. Horace Annesely Vachell was a fairly popular British writer around the turn of the century. Today he’d write screenplays that would be stripped of all their charm before making it to the screen. This story comes from his 1914 collection Loot (from the Temple of Fortune).

“I simply loathe the woman. She’s supremely selfish, and she can’t act for nuts.”


“I think I ought to know. And she’ll never give you a chance if she can prevent it. She’d crawl on to the stage if she was dyin’.”

“She’s been very pleasant to me.”

“Cat! Anyhow, she’s wrecking this play, and Raeburn knows it.”

The girls shared a small dressing-room at the top of the flight of stone stairs behind the stage. Upon a long table were the usual articles of make-up, brilliantly illuminated by two electric lights. The looking-glass—a large three-sided affair—was the only bit of furniture worth more than a few shillings. It belonged to the plainer of the pair, Fanny Temple, granddaughter of the illustrious Charles Temple, and therefore of the kin to the Beans and the Sherrys and other lesser lights of the dramatic profession. Long ago, Fanny had humbly realized that she was one of the innumerable actresses who are constrained, by physical disability alone, to play second-rate parts. She was hardly ever out of an engagement, and the critics always praised her performances. Managers said she was “sound.”

The other girl, Joan Forsyth, was in striking contrast to her friend. She had no affiliations whatever with the stage, except genuine talent, and in adopting it as a livelihood had quarrelled with her father, a country parson, and most of her relations. Her face, remarkable for its sweetness and intelligence as much as for its beauty, exhibited signs of suffering, the record of four years’ hard work upon an insufficient salary. Finally her great friend, Fanny, had obtained for her the billet of understudy to Miss Sybil Egremont.

Fanny rubbed her cheeks with cold cream, while Joan stared at the handsomely framed photograph of Henry Raeburn, which occupied the place of honour. In another silver frame might be seen the genial presentment of Alfred Brand, Raeburn’s stage-manager, the most active person, physically and mentally, whom Joan had ever met. Just in front of the mirror was a large oblong piece of place glass, covering a paper upon which were inscribed the autographs of all the stars with whom, at one time or another, Fanny had acted. Originally it had been the sight of this interesting document which had filled Joan with a consuming desire to become an actress. Fanny, having recited a thousand reasons against a parson’s daughter trying to earn a living on the boards, had eventually persuaded the famous Johnson to accept Joan as a pupil with the promise of a small salary if she could earn it. With Johnson, Joan played dozens of parts, always in the provinces, and was rigorously trained. But she very nearly starved.

Fanny began to rub in the flesh tint, as she saw Joan staring at Raeburn’s photograph. Her eyes twinkled; then she added sharply:

“Did Henry rehearse with you this morning?”

A slight blush deepened the colour upon Joan’s cheeks as she replied rather tartly: “Of course he didn’t.”

“You had to go through it with that awful stick of an understudy?”

“Yes; but Mr. Brand was very nice.”

“Nice?” Fanny laughed derisively as she attacked her eyelashes. “What did he say?”

“He said I seemed to have some sort of an idea of what was what.”

“I’ll bet that did you more good than the bun and glass of milk you take for your lunch. Well, I told Alf to be nice, as you call it, to you.”

“He has promised to persuade Mr. Raeburn to go through the big scene with me.”

“Henry is such a slacker about understudy rehearsals.”

“He isn’t a slacker about anything,” said Joan.

Fanny put the finishing touch of red to her lips as the call-boy knocked hard at the door.

“Good gracious,” exclaimed Fanny, “it’s not time yet.”

The boy’s pert face appeared.

“Miss Egremont wants to see you, Miss Temple, before you go on.”

“Right,” said Fanny. Then, as the boy vanished and they heard him clattering downstairs, she added grumblingly: “What on earth can she want with me?”

She dressed and descended, leaving Joan behind vaguely curious, because everything that concerned the leading lady cast a shadow, so to speak, upon herself. Sybil Egremont, indeed, obscured the present and future. During the run of the preceding piece, which had lasted more than a year, Joan had prayed nightly that a chance might be vouchsafed her. But the fair Sybil had sworn never to disappoint her dear public. She would come on with a temperature of 103, flout her doctor, faint after the performance, remain in bed from midnight till five in the afternoon, but the dear public saw her smiling and gay at nine every evening! And in the preceding play she had scored a great success in a part discreetly written to reveal dazzlingly her quality as a light comedienne while obscuring as discreetly her defects. But this new venture of Raeburn’s was quite another matter. From the first rehearsal it became plain to both author and actor-manager that Miss Egremont had been tried too high. A pretty woman, with a charming voice, and a sparkling manner slightly stereotyped after five-and-twenty years’ work, she had always yearned to play a serious part in a strong problem play. Fanatics was certainly strong enough, and her part, as she took it, a serious one. Raeburn smiled in public and gnashed his teeth in private. Upon the strength of her success in his previous production, his leading lady had signed an ironclad agreement “for the run of the piece.”

And the critics, alas! although kind to a popular favourite, predicted that the run would be short. Indeed, the more knowing affirmed that the libraries and agencies alone kept Fanatics going. They had speculated heavily. Raeburn, on this account, was not likely to lose much money, but everybody knew that money was nothing to him; whereas success was as the breath of his nostrils. And the author and he had been so very cocksure that Fanatics would please and, possibly, instruct the town.

After the first act Fanny came back. Joan, as understudy, might have gone home.

Fanny burst into speech as she opened the door.

“I say, the author has put a lot of idiotic comedy into Sybil’s part, and into mine. We have an absurd scene together.”

“What a shame!”

“Business is business. Alfred Brand says every laugh will be worth a fiver a night. There are about thirty judiciously interpolated laughs!”

“The play will be spoilt.”

“Henry, poor darling, is desperate. He hasn’t another suitable play, and if he had, the author wouldn’t let him produce it before the autumn. The critics are to be invited to attend the revised version next Monday week. We shall have an awful time rehearsing—and in this broiling weather, too.” Joan sighed.

“I do wish you could have played the part once as it is written,” said Fanny fervently.

Joan kissed her. “What an angel you are!”

“Angel! Alfred calls me a rum little devil.”

“Cheek! Do you like Mr. Brand, Fanny? Sometimes—er—I think you do, and sometimes I think you don’t.”

“He’s not a bad old darling,” said Fanny lightly. Then she added, with her tongue in her cheek: “And his wife will never be out of a London engagement.”

“Fanny! That doesn’t count with you?”

“Make no bloomin’ error! It does.” Joan went her way, back to a dismal lodging in Bloomsbury. As she walked she wondered whether she would ever marry such a man as Alfred Brand. “Monkey” Brand he was called in the profession, because he had an ape-like facility in grimacing. Was Alf a bounder?

From the point of view of a parson’s daughter, who happened to be the niece of a pompous, fussy baronet, Alf must be reckoned as slightly “off colour.” His ties were—! He wore his hat, on and off the stage, with a tilt not approved by county families. And his language in the presence of ladies—!

But he was a power; and a good, honest, hardworking fellow, likely to own a theatre some day. And his wife—as Fanny observed—would not pine away unemployed. Joan, let it be added, was sick unto death of shoulder of mutton, of thrice-trimmed hats, of darned stockings, and of cleaned gloves. Then she thought of Henry Raeburn, Eton and Oxford man, clever, charming, and, admittedly, one of the best.

“I am a fool,” said Joan to herself.

* * *

During the following week the rehearsals of the new version engaged the time and attention of the principals; but the understudies were left in peace. Joan, indeed, had not received her new part. Everybody noticed that Raeburn seemed worried and distressed, and Alfred reflected faithfully the moods of his “governor.” Fanny said he was behaving like a beast.

“He’s mad,” she confided to Joan, “because really he persuaded Henry to adopt the revisions.”

Saturday came at last with the two performances of the original play. After the first act of the matinee, Fanny said to Joan very sulkily: “Sybil has asked me to spend Sunday and Monday with her at her cottage in Sussex. That means more rehearsals of our scene. She never asked me before, and never will again. I was going on the river with Alf. But he says I must kow-tow to Sybil.”

“Mr. Brand has asked me to go with him instead of you.”

“He has, has he? “said Fanny quickly. “Are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you’ll go. Alf always has his own way.”

“Fanny dear, is there anything between you and Mr. Brand?”

“Lots of things. Make Alf behave himself on Sunday.”

“You don’t mean—?”

“Oh! he’s always been ridiculously prim and proper with me, but I’m only a rum little devil. You’re It, the greatest thing that ever happened. Alf learnt such expressions in America, but he never applied ’em to—me.”

“He hasn’t applied them to me, Fanny.”

“Really? That’s what he calls you behind your back. He may be very enterprising to-morrow after lunch.”

“I won’t go,” said Joan.

“Oh yes, you will,” said Fanny.

Sunday dawned dazzlingly fine: a glorious day for the river. Joan put on her thinnest and prettiest frock, wondering vaguely whether it wouldn’t have been wiser to wear a less alluring gown. Fanny’s word “enterprising” terrified her. And Alf had hinted at champagne, supposed she liked it not too dry. Just before the evening performance she had ventured to decline his invitation. Alf had been bold as young Lochinvar.

“What? And the punt and the lunch ordered—! Of course you’ll come. I’ll pick you up in a hansom at nine sharp. You’ll be fined if you’re late.”

As she pinned on her hat, which represented the difference in price between milk and a bun and a properly grilled chop multiplied by the number of days in a calendar month, Joan murmured to herself: “I couldn’t marry him.”

They travelled together to Shepperton. Here a punt and a hamper awaited them.

“Anybody else coming? “said Joan.

“Not much.”

“But—!” The hamper was indicated with a lift of her nicely defined eyebrows.

“We’re going to do ourselves jolly well.”

Alf smiled genially, and Joan smiled in return. Alfred looked quite presentable in flannels, and he handled his pole like a waterman.

“We’ve had a beastly week at the theatre,” he said, as they were passing through the lock. “The governor’s nearly off his head.”

Joan nodded. Her hand trailed in the cool water and she lay back upon the cushions easier in body than in mind. Her father’s conscience, which troubled her at times, told her that she was obtaining goods (from Fortnum & Mason’s) and other amenities under false pretences. Hunger, however, partly obliterated this uncomfortable conviction. They lunched up a shady backwater, amongst the willows and meadowsweet, and during luncheon shop was talked. After luncheon, Alf lit an immense cigar.

“Now for it!” thought Joan.

Up to this point not even a glance from the young man’s eyes had betrayed his feelings. He was as prim and proper with the “greatest thing that ever happened” as with the “rum little devil.” This rare self-control evoked Joan’s admiration, an admiration slightly tempered by pique. Alfred might have said something interesting about her hat, not to mention what was under it.

The explosion came suddenly.

“Of course, Miss Forsyth, with your penetrating eye, you must know what’s the matter with me?”

Joan cast down her eyes.

“You do know—don’t you?”


“I’m in love. Bad dose, too. Quite incurable. And I know that the young lady doesn’t care a hang for me, and—er—in fact, looks upon me as a sort of bounder.”

“She doesn’t,” said Joan.

“She does. Because she’s a peach, a regular nectarine, she may say I’m not a bad sort, but in her heart of hearts she thinks me a bounder. And I feel abject.”

“Thank goodness, you don’t look abject,” said Joan. “I hate the doormat kind of man.”

“Do you mind my talking to you like this?”

“No-o,” said Joan doubtfully. A new feeling for Alf was stirring in her heart. For the first time she saw the man, a really modest, unassuming fellow, beneath the crust of the didactic, dominating, loud-speaking stage-manager.

“I had to speak—or bust,” Alfred explained.

Joan smiled.

“I’m glad you spoke, Mr. Brand.”

“I wish you’d call me Alf, and let me call you Joan.”

“I don’t mind.”

“And as we don’t trot in the same class—”

“But we do. At least—”

“We don’t. My father was a Nonconformist pork butcher. Of course, I was given no choice in the matter. You belong to the nobility.”

“I don’t.”

“Your uncle is a baronet. I dare say he’s eaten my father’s sausages.”

“I’m sure they were delicious.”

“It’s very good of you to say that,” said Alf; “I always thought he put in too many bread-crumbs. But we’re wandering from the subject. I want you to give me the straight tip.”

“The straight tip?”

“You see, I want to brush myself up a bit. See?”

“I see.”

“I do one or two things not quite—er—Louis Quatorze. Eh? Trifles, you say. In real life, as on the stage, trifles are important. I’m a stickler for trifles on the stage.”

“You are,” agreed Joan.

“Now, then,” said Alf, settling himself in the punt, “fire away. What’s wrong with Alfred Brand?”

“I really don’t know.”

“Now, Joan dear, that won’t wash. You know jolly well. Have another glass of fizz?”

“No, thank you. You place me in a most embarrassing position.”

“Whatever you say I shall take it lying down.”

He lay at full length at the bottom of the punt, and blew some circles of smoke into the air. Above, the bees droned; below, the river lapped seductively against the sides of the punt.

“Perhaps your ties—”

“Good! Tone down ties! I was rather doubtful myself about that lavender and green I wore yesterday. Next!”

“Some people have a prejudice against patent leather boots with bright yellow tops.”

“I paid twenty-five bob for those boots,” murmured Alf. “Happy thought, I’ll have the tops darkened.”

“In moments of excitement your language—”

“On or off the stage?”

“On, of course.”

“We’ll let that slide, Joan. I know my duty to the governor. And it’s rather rough on me that I have to do his dirty work. Blaze away!”

“I can’t think of anything else.”


“I’ve seen you wearing a tall hat with a blue serge suit.”

“Never more, as the raven said.”

The rest of the day passed swiftly and pleasantly. Alfred exhibited a courtesy and deference which tickled delightfully Joan’s self-respect, and compliments to the hat and what was under it were not lacking. When he deposited her, later, at the door of her dingy lodging, he whispered confidentially:

“I mean to boom you sky-high some day.”

* * *

Next day Joan went early to the theatre. The doorkeeper seemed less impassive than usual, and as Joan paused to ask for letters he said, with an odious grin:
“Mr. Brand is looking for you, miss.”

“Is he?” Joan replied indifferently. She hoped that Alfred would not make his attentions too conspicuous at the theatre. He had behaved so amazingly well on the river that a reaction was to be apprehended. Then she heard his voice, very hard and cross:

“You’ve turned up at last.”

“I’m earlier than usual.”

“Come along with me.”

She followed the autocrat obediently, wondering what was the matter. Alf s hat was being worn at an angle which indicated contemptuous indifference to her admonitions of the previous afternoon. He hurried straight to his own room, upon a level with the stage.

“Look at this!”

He handed her a telegram.

“Miss Egremont and Miss Mordaunt will not be able to play to-night.”

“Heavens! “exclaimed Joan, dazed by surprise.

“Just come,” said Alf in a terrible voice. “The governor’s wild—simply balmy. No explanations! Unheard of! And to-night of all nights, with Tomlinson and Bagshot and old Wrest in the stalls.”

At these great names Joan paled.

“I shall do my best,” she faltered.

“There’s going to be no performance.”


Into that simple exclamation Joan put something impossible to set down, not merely disappointment, but a certain poignant protest against the irony of a fate that presented opportunity with the malicious intention of snatching it from her, even as she leapt to seize it. Alfred stared at her. Then he said very slowly, incredulously:

“I can’t believe you’d go on without having a single rehearsal with the governor.”

“That’s his fault, not mine,” panted Joan. “I know my part perfectly, and you know that I know it. Oh, Mr. Brand—Alfred—do, please,” she laid a trembling hand upon his arm, “let me have my chance. I’ve waited for it so long. And I won’t disgrace you. You have such influence with Mr. Raeburn.” She grew desperate, seeing his face harden, and the deepening lines between his brows. “Do this for me, and I’ll do anything, anything, for you.”

In her agitation she clung to him, uplifting wet eyes to his impassive face.

“You’re a good plucked ’un,” he said curtly. “I will try.”

“You nice man!”

“But I’m afraid Henry won’t have it. Run to Sybil’s room and look at her frocks.”

“She wouldn’t allow me to wear them.”

“Rot! The dresses belong to us. And she’s put us in the cart, d—n her!”

He raced off, muttering to himself. Joan crossed the passage and went to No. 1 dressing-room, where Sybil Egremont’s dresser greeted her with a grin.

“Looks as if you was going to ’ave yer chance, miss.”

“Mr. Brand has just asked me to look over Miss Egremont’s dresses.”

“She will be mad if you wear ’em.”

“I don’t care,” said Joan, with a laugh.

“Nor do I,” said the dresser, who knew her Sybil from alpha to omega.

Three minutes later Raeburn and Brand came in. With a gesture, Raeburn dismissed the dresser; then he turned to Joan:

“Do you really think you can do it?”

“I swear I can,” said Joan.

“A sight better than the other,” said Alfred. “Give the critics a chance to see the original version played as it ought to be played.”

Joan could have fallen upon his neck and kissed him. But she kept her eye on Raeburn, who stared as steadily at her, trying to measure an unknown quantity. He drew in his breath sharply, as he said:

“All right. If you don’t funk it, I won’t. You’re a trump, anyway.”

He smiled faintly, nodded, and went out of the room. “Can you wear her frocks?” said Alf in his most businesslike tone. “Yes.”

Just before the curtain went up, Alfred made a little speech to the audience. He said that the presentation of the revised version was indefinitely postponed owing to the absence of Miss Egremont and Miss Mordaunt; then he asked for the sympathy of the playgoers on behalf of Miss Joan Forsyth, whose performance—he ventured to predict—would be very interesting and remarkable. The house received this statement in chilling silence. Alf rushed round to the front just in time to meet Tomlinson and Wrest. He attacked them instantly.

“I’ve never asked a favour of you,” he said, “but don’t go. I beg you to stay, and ask the others to stay.” He indicated Bagshot and half a dozen men slipping through the doors which led from the stalls. “It’s going to be worth while.”

“Who is Miss Joan Forsyth? “said Bagshot.

“She’s—It,” said Alf solemnly. “She’s the rising young actress you’ve all been looking for, and tonight she’s come to stay.”

Old Wrest twisted his grizzled moustache.

“We’ve heard that before,” he grumbled.

“Not from me, Mr. Wrest. Gentlemen, please don’t go!”

All and sundry glanced at old Wrest, who had a headache, and in consequence was in a vile temper. But there must have been quality in Alf’s eyes. The famous critic shrugged his shoulders, and without a word went back into the theatre; the others followed like sheep. Alfred, smiling for the first time that evening, returned to the stage, and, an instant later, was knocking at the door of Joan’s dressing-room. To his intense disgust, he found her quivering with fright and almost in a state of collapse.

“I shall make a mess of it! “she wailed.

Alf seized her and shook her, not gently.

“Look here,” he said savagely. “You seem to forget that my reputation is at stake. You’ve got to justify me before Raeburn and old Wrest, and don’t you forget it!” In a softer and kindlier tone he added: “Thunder and Mars! How ripping you look!”

“Do I? “said Joan feebly.

“You’re beyond the giddy horizon.”

The call-boy hammered at the door.

“Miss Forsyth,” he said, and vanished.

“Come on! “said Alf, taking her arm.

She must have passed a dozen persons before she reached the wings. There was not one but had a kindly glance for her. Friendly hands sought hers; eager voices murmured “Good luck!” and “God bless you, miss!” The stage-carpenter, who went a-racing, said in a stage whisper: “There’s a winner!”

“How can I thank you?” whispered Joan to Alf.

“I’ll tell you after the show,” said Alf.

* * *

Joan’s entrance came rather late. Up to this point the first act had been generally considered admirable. But always Raeburn had been sensible that Sybil Egremont “let things down,” to use the vivid technical expression. Interest, action, dialogue seemed to flag because the long-expected leading lady was too light for the part. Sybil tripped on smiling, sure of a boisterous welcome from the groundlings. Not till the applause had completely died down did she assume the expression suited to her rô1e, the rô1e of a girl who is about to dismiss her lover because he is a free-thinker and an agnostic.

Joan entered very slowly, with eyes abased, and trembling. She despised herself; but Raeburn, waiting to receive her, thought she was acting. When she began her voice faltered and broke. What Alf said to the prompter need not be recorded, but old Wrest screwed his glass into his eye. An unmistakable thrill rustled through the house. Joan was not aware of this, but Raeburn responded instantly. He knew that the psychological moment had come. Out of all present Joan herself and Alf were the only persons who were unable to distinguish triumph from failure.

Gradually the long, intense scene drew to a close. Joan wondered why the house was so cold, but she was playing to Raeburn alone; not once had her glance strayed across the footlights. Her exit, necessarily a quiet one, left Raeburn alone on the stage. The curtain fell immediately.

“Stop!” said Alfred huskily, as Joan was hurrying off to her dressing-room. “Good Lord! don’t you hear ’em?”

“Where is she?” said Raeburn.

He pulled her forward. Across the blazing footlights she saw the innumerable faces and heard the deafening applause. Then the curtain fell, and she heard Raeburn give a deep sigh.

“Was I very bad?” she asked.

He did not answer, for, as usual, he took the second call alone. Joan slipped away, and again Alf stopped her.

“They’ll want you,” he said.

And they did. The great London public wanted her alone. She understood at last, and tried to smile, failing deliciously. Two tears rolled down her cheeks. The house began to cheer.

“She’s knocked ‘em,” said Alfred.

“Why the devil didn’t you tell me about her before? “demanded Raeburn.

“Told you again and again, and you wouldn’t listen.”

“Of course there’s the third act to come.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for a thousand pounds. I hope the author is in front.”

“He isn’t,” said Raeburn. “He went away furious.”

“He may be at his Club. I’ll ’phone him on the chance.”

* * *

Two noteworthy incidents occurred before the big scene in the third and last act. The author entered the house. A stall was found for him. To his intense amazement, he saw Sybil Egremont and Fanny Temple in one of the small boxes. Both ladies, who had just arrived, appeared to be in high health, but beneath the fair Sybil’s too carefully composed features the dramatist divined volcanic fires. Then he saw that he was sitting next to old Wrest.

“Hullo!” he whispered. “How are you? I’ve had one fit to-night. Am I going to have another?”

“Yes, you are,” said the mighty one. “And I’ll tell you something else, my young friend! To-morrow is going to be a day of surprises for you and a good many other persons.”

But afterwards the author admitted that the night was a bigger thing, so far as surprises went, than the day which followed: the day which transformed him, professionally speaking, from a mere mouse into a man. The scene after the third act eclipsed all previous records at that particular theatre. Raeburn and Joan had sixteen calls, and even then the house refused to go home unless the author appeared. Never, in the history of the stage, had the great fact that an author is at the mercy of his interpreter been more abundantly set forth.

Finally, Raeburn, on the way to his dressing-room, accompanied by the faithful Alfred, met Fanny Temple.

“Where’s Sybil?” he said nervously, for he had been told of her arrival.

“The excitement has been too much for her,” said Fanny demurely. “She’s gone home.” Then, with a twinkle in her two small beady eyes, she added: “You’ll receive a note from her to-morrow. She’s chucking her part, retiring gracefully.”

“Thank the Lord! “exclaimed Raeburn. “What happened?”

“We came to grief motoring up. I had awful difficulty in getting that wire to you. Everything has turned out for the best, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Raeburn thoughtfully. “You must give me the details to-morrow. That friend of yours is a wonder; and a dear and a sweet.”

But the details were only given to two persons: Alfred Brand and Joan. Fanny found Joan in her dressing-room, almost exhausted, and quite incurious as to what had caused the accident to Miss Egremont’s motor. Fanny, moreover, did most of the talking.

“I knew you had it in you,” she declared. “Now you’re a star, and I hope you’ll shine for ever and ever. What sort of time did you and Alf have on the river?”

“Very pleasant.”

“Was he—er—enterprising?”

“Not at all. Perhaps he might have been if—”

“If you’d not looked as you’re looking at this very moment. Well, you won’t have to marry to get an engagement now—eh?”

The “Eh?” was put rather sharply, but Joan was very tired. Fanny, eyeing her shrewdly, bade her good-night with many kisses.

“What a pal you are!” said Joan.

“Ain’t I?” said Fanny, with a wicked wink. At the door she paused with dramatic effect.

“Henry says you’re a dear and a sweet,” she said, as she whisked out of sight.

Joan looked at Raeburn’s photograph, and from it again to the comical, genial countenance of the man for whom she had promised to do anything, the man who was waiting downstairs, the man who had scribbled a note asking her to sup with him alone.

* * *

They supped at the Savoy, in the grill-room, at a snug table set in a corner apart from the others. Whatever physical weakness and exhaustion Joan might have felt vanished with the first glass of champagne. She received many congratulations. The superlative Achille, prince of head waiters, had heard the news, and presented a basket of orchids with the compliments of the management. He waited on her, smiling blandly, with the rare smile reserved for the chosen few. And he addressed her as “Madame.” Not perhaps till then did Joan fully realize that greatness had been thrust upon her.

Alfred sipped his coffee and removed carefully the end of a Calixto cigar.

“It’s coming now,” thought Joan.

By this time her mind was working clearly. Ever since the call at the end of the first act, and even before, she had been conscious of nothing beyond the exactions of the passing moment. So inordinate a demand had been made upon her physical and mental powers that everything not immediately concerned with her part in the play became nebulous and amorphous. Even when Fanny had said pointedly that she was independent of material considerations, her mind, still dazed by her triumph, had refused to grapple with the future.

“You said you would do anything for me,” whispered Alf.

She had the courage to meet his eyes. And, instantly, she knew that procrastination would be futile and abominable.

“Yes,” she answered deliberately.

His next question puzzled her.

“Miss Temple is a great pal of yours, isn’t she?”

“The only one I have—of my own sex.”

“Thanks.” He leaned forward. “Do you think she cares for me?”

“I don’t know,” said Joan, with a nervous smile. If Fanny cared, the situation was lamentable.

“You are so clever, you could find out,” suggested Alf.

“You mean it would m-make a d-difference?” She found herself blushing and stammering. Certainly Alf must be given credit for singular delicacy.

“Make a difference—?” He laughed rather coarsely. “Look here, Joan, you seem to have a poor opinion of me. Do you think that I’m such a cad as to consider only myself?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Joan humbly.

“She’s such a rum little devil,” said Alf reflectively. “I’ve never been able to make her out. Last year, before you joined us, I paid her a lot of attention.”

“I never knew that,” said Joan quickly.

“After you came I rather dried up, because—”

“Yes, yes—”

“You can guess why I dried up?”


“Naturally?” He stared at her in astonishment. “Tell me, how did you guess?”

“I suppose that I—”

“You are a wonder. Yes, it was you. Till you came I was her pal, and everything was working just right. You upset the whole apple-cart. You couldn’t help it, of course. I have some pride. So I kept away from both of you. But, once or twice lately, I’ve had a sort of feeling in my bones that she cares.”

“I will find out,” said Joan.

“Thanks, most awfully,” said Alf. “If she does care,” he added, blushing, “I’ll be grateful to you as long as I live.”

Then Joan understood, but Alf always wondered why she burst out laughing.

“You want me to propose for you?”

“Heaven forbid! But I want a hint. Was I pal, or something more?”

“I’m almost sure you were something more.”

And Joan laughed again.

* * *

Fanny came round to Joan’s dismal room early the next morning, carrying every one of the daily papers. Old Wrest had a column and a half about Miss Forsyth.

“Wish I could read ’em aloud to Sybil,” said Fanny. “Oh, the time she gave me! And, honestly, I believe that the new version would have hurt her badly, and killed the author. Supped with Alf, didn’t you?”

“How did you know?”

“I’m not a very scrupulous person. I saw his note open on the dressing-table. Anything happen?”

Fanny was smiling, but Joan saw that her right hand was clenched.

“Something happened. Alf is head over ears in love.”

“We all knew that.”

“With you.”


“You. And I see as plainly that you’re head over ears in love with him.”

Explanations and kissing followed. Then there was silence, broken by Fanny’s slightly high-pitched voice:

“Last night I committed a terrible crime.”

“Heavens, Fanny!”

“I deliberately prevented Sybil from playing. I put tar into the clutch. Sybil thinks a mischievous boy did it. There was a pot of the stuff near her garden railings. The chauffeur was making love to the cook. I saw the chance and took it. I put in the tar, and got back into the house. Purposely, I came down late, and Sybil ragged me savagely. We started, and the tar took time to do its work. Two miles from anywhere we stuck hopelessly, and the chauffeur found out that a trick had been played. He remembered the pot of tar, and had hazy recollections of a small boy hovering near it. Sybil howled with rage, and I volunteered to get a telegram to the theatre. I walked and ran my toes off, but it reached the theatre in time. Of course, I was horribly afraid there would be no performance.”

“You did this for me?”

Fanny screwed up her face.

“I’d like you to think so, but I must tell the truth sometimes. I said to myself that if you had a big success, and I was sure of that, you wouldn’t look at my Alf. I see now the finger of Providence. I was inspired. Never give me away! Swear!”

“I’ll swear, but you’ll tell Alf?”

“On my wedding-day.”

And the only remark that Alf made was: “I always said you were a rum little devil.”

Mrs. Raeburn is rather too fond of boasting that she has no secrets from her husband, but he doesn’t know and never will know the name of the person who put the tar into the clutch.

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