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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    Canby walked fast, the clamorous dining-room seeming to pursue him, and the thought of what figure he had cut there filling him with horror of himself, though he found a little consolation in wondering if he hadn't insulted Miss Cornish because he was a genius and couldn't help doing queer things. That solace was slight, indeed; Canby was only twenty-seven, but he was frightened.

    The night before he had been as eagerly happy as a boy at Christmas Eve. He had finished his last day at the office, and after initiating the youth who was to take his desk, had parted with his employer genially, but to the undeniable satisfaction of both. The new career, opening so gloriously, a month earlier, with Talbot Potter's acceptance of the play, was thus definitely adopted, and no old one left to fall back upon. And Madison Avenue, after dark, shows little to reassure a new playwright who carries in his pocket a note ending with the words, "before deciding to put on another play I have been considering." It was Bleak Street, that night, for young Stewart Canby, and a bleak, bleak walk he took therein.

    Desperate alterations were already scratched into the manuscript; plans for more and more ran overlapping one another in his mind, accompanied by phrases--echoes and fragments of Talbot Potter: "Punch! What this play needs is Punch!" "Big love scenes!" "Big scene with a man!" "Great sacrifice for a woman!" "Big-hearted, lovable fellow!" "You dog! So on, so on!" "Zowie!" He must get all this into the play and yet preserve his "third act situation," leniently admitted to be "quite a fair" one. Slacking his gait somewhat, the tormented young man lifted his hat in order to run his hand viciously through his hair, which he seemed to blame for everything. Then he muttered, under his breath, indignantly: "Darn you, let me alone!"

    Curious bedevilment! It was not Talbot Potter whom he thus adjured: it was Wanda Malone. And yet, during the rehearsal, he had not once thought consciously of the understudy; and he had come away from the theatre occupied--exclusively, he would have sworn--with the predicament in which he found himself and his play. Surely that was enough to fill and overflow any new playwright's mind, but, about half an hour after he had reached his room and set to work upon the manuscript of the second act, he discovered that he had retained, unawares, a singularly clear impression of Miss Malone.

    Then, presently, he realized that distinct pictures of her kept coming between him and his work, and that her voice rang softly and persistently in his ear. Over and over in that voice's slender music--plaintive, laughing, reaching everywhere so clearly--he heard the detested "line": "What are you two good people conspiring about?" Over and over he saw the slow, comprehending movement with which she removed her hat and veil to let Talbot Potter judge her. And as she stood, with that critic's eye searching her, Canby remembered that through some untraceable association of ideas he had inexplicably thought of a drawing of "Florence Dombey" in an old set of Dickens engravings he had seen at his grandfather's in his boyhood--and had not seen since. And he remembered the lilac bushes in bloom on a May morning at his grandfather's. Somehow she made him think of them, too.

    And as he sat at his desk, striving to concentrate upon the manuscript, the clearness with which Wanda Malone came before him increased; she became more and more vivid to him, and she would not be dismissed; she persisted and insisted, becoming first an annoyance, and then, as he fought the witchery, a serious detriment to his writing. She became part of every thought about his play, and of every other thought. He did not want her; he felt no interest in her; he had vital work to do-- and she haunted him, seemed to be in the very room with him. He worked in spite of her, but she pursued him none the less constantly; she had gone down the stairs to dinner with him; she floated before him throughout the torture of Miss Cornish's address; she was present even when he exploded and fled; she was with him now, in this desolate walk toward Talbot Potter's apartment--the pale, symmetrical little face and the relentless sweet voice commandeering the attention he wanted desperately to keep upon what he meant to say to Potter.

    Once before in his life he had suffered such an experience: that of having his thoughts possessed, against his will, by a person he did not know and did not care to know. It had followed his happening to see an intoxicated truck-driver lying beneath an overturned wagon. "Easy, boys! Don' mangle me!" the man kept begging his rescuers. And Canby recalled how "Easy, boys! Don' mangle me!" sounded plaintively in his ears for days, bothering him in his work at the office. Remembering it now, he felt a spiteful satisfaction in classing that obsession with this one. It seemed at least a step toward teaching Miss Wanda Malone to know her place.

    But he got no respite from the siege, and was still incessantly beleaguered when he encountered the marble severities of the Pantheon Apartments' entrance hall and those of its field-marshal, who paraded him stonily to the elevator. Mr. Potter's apartment was upon the twelfth floor, a facet stated in a monosyllable by the field-marshal, and confirmed, upon the opening of the cage at that height, by Mr. Potter's voice melodiously belling a flourish of laughter on the other side of a closed door bearing his card. It was rich laughter, cadenced and deep and loud, but so musically modulated that, though it might never seem impromptu, even old Carson Tinker had once declared that he liked to listen to it almost as much as Potter did.

    Old Carson Tinker was listening to it now, as Canby discovered, after a lisping Japanese had announced him at the doorway of a cream-coloured Louis Sixteenth salon: an exquisite apartment, delicately personalized here and there by luxurious fragilities which would have done charmingly, on the stage, for a marquise's boudoir. Old Tinker, in evening dress, sat uncomfortably, sideways, upon the edge of a wicker and brocade "chaise lounge," finishing a tiny glass of chartreuse, while Talbot Potter, in the middle of the room, took leave of a second guest who had been dining with him.

    Potter was concluding the rendition of hilarity which had penetrated to the outer hall, and, merely waving the playwright toward Tinker, swept the same gesture upward to complete it by resting a cordial hand upon the departing guest's shoulder. This personage, a wasp-figured, languorous youth, with pale plastered hair over a talcum face, flicked his host lightly upon the breast with a pair of white gloves.

    "None the less, Pottuh," he said, "why shouldn't you play Othello as a mulatto? I maintain, you see, it would be taking a step in technique; they'd get the face, you see. Then I want you to do something really and truly big: Oedipus. Why not Oedipus? Think of giving the States a thing like Oedipus done as you could do it! Of coss, I don't say you could ever be another Mewnay-Sooyay. No. I don't go that far. You haven't Mewnay-Sooyay's technique. But you could give us just the savour of Attic culture--at least the savour, you see. The mere savour would be something. Why should you keep on producing these cheap little plays they foist on you? Oh, I know you always score a personal success in the wahst of them, but they've never given you a Big character--and the play, outside of you, is always piffle. Of coss, you know what I've always wanted you to do, what I've constantly insisted in print: Rostand. You commission Rostand to do one of his magnificent things for you and we serious men will do our part. Now, my duh good chap, I must be getting on, or the little gel will be telephoning all round the town!" He turned to the door, pausing upon the threshold. "Now, don't let any of these cheap little fellows foist any of their cheap little plays on you. This for my stirrup-cup: you cable Rostand tomorrow. Drop the cheap little things and cable Rostand. Tell him I suggested it, if you like." He disappeared in the hallway, calling back: "My duh Pottuh, good-night!" And the outer door was heard to close.

    Canby, feeling a natural prejudice against this personage, glanced uneasily at Talbot Potter's face and was surprised to find that fine bit of modelling contorted with rage. The sight of this emotion was reassuring, but its source was a mystery, for it had seemed to the playwright that the wasp-waisted youth's remarks--though horribly damaging to the cheap little Canbys with their cheap little "Roderick Hanscoms"--were on the whole rather flattering to the subject of them, and betokened a real interest in his career.

    "Ass!" said Potter.

    Canby exhaled a breath of relief. He began to feel that it might be possible to like this man.

    "Ass!" said Potter, striding up and down the room. "Ass! Ass! Ass! Ass!"

    And Canby felt easier and happier. He foresaw, too, that there would be no cabling to Rostand, a thing he had naively feared, for a moment, as imminent.

    Potter halted, bursting into speech less monosyllabic but no less vehement: "Mr. Tinker, did you ever see Mounet-Sully?"

    "No."

    "Did you, Mr. Canby?"

    "No."

    "Mewnay-Sooyay!" Potter mimicked the pronunciation of his adviser. "'Mewnay-Sooyay! Of coss I don't say YOU could ever be another Mewnay-Sooyay!' Ass! I'll tell you what Mounet-Sully's 'technique' amounts to, Mr. Tinker. It's yell! Just yell, yell, yell! Does he think I can't yell! Why, Packer could open his mouth like a hippopotamus and yell through a part! Ass!"

    "Was that young man a-a critic?" Canby asked.

    "No!" shouted Potter. "There aren't any!"

    "He writes about theatrical matters," said Carson Tinker. "Talky-talk writing: 'the drama'--'temperament'--'people of cultivation'--quotes Latin or Italian or something. 'Technique' is his star word; he plays 'technique' for a hand every other line. Doesn't do any harm; in fact, I think he does us a good deal of good. Lots of people read that talky-talk writing nowadays. Not in New York, but in road-towns, where they have plenty of time. This fellow's never against any show much, unless he takes a notion. You slip 'dolsy far nienty' or something about Danty or logarithms somewhere into your play, where it won't delay the action much, and he'll be for you."

    Canby nodded and laughed eagerly. Tinker seemed to take it for granted that "Roderick Hanscom" was to be produced in spite of "another play I have been considering."

    "There aren't any critics, I tell you!" Potter stormed. "Mounet-Sully!"

    "Well," said old Tinker quietly, "I'd like to believe it, but people making a living that way have ruined a good many million dollars' worth of property in this town. Some of it was very good property." He paused, and added: "Some of it was mine, too."

    "Good property?" said the playwright with fresh uneasiness. "You mean the critics sometimes ruin a good play?"

    "How do they know a good play--or good acting?" Tinker returned placidly. "Every play you ever saw in your life, some people in the audience said they thought it was good; some said it was bad. How do critics know any more about it than anybody else? For instance, how can anybody that hasn't been in the business tell what's good acting and what's a good part?"

    "But a critic--aren't critics in the bus--"

    "No. They aren't theatrical people," said Tinker dryly. "They're writers."

    "But some of them must have studied from the inside," Canby urged, feeling that "Roderick Hanscom's" chances were getting slighter and slighter. "Some of them must have either been managers for a while, or actors--or had plays pro--"

    "No," said Tinker. "If they had they wouldn't do for critics. They wouldn't have the heart."

    "They oughtn't to have so much power!" the young man exclaimed passionately. "Think of a playwright working on his play--two years, maybe--night after night--and then, all in one swoop, these fellows that you say don't know anything--"

    "Power!" Potter laughed contemptuously. "Tinker, you're in your dotage! Look at what I've done: Haven't I made my way in spite of everything they could do to stifle me? And have I ever compromised for one moment? Haven't I gone my own way, absolutely?"

    "Yes." Tinker's face was more cryptic than usual. "Yes, indeed!"

    "Power! Haven't I made them eat out of my hand? Look at that ass--glad to crawl in here and nibble a crust from my table to-night! Ass!" He had halted for a second in front of the manager, but resumed his pacing with a mutter of subterranean thunder: "Mounet-Sully!"

    "Hasn't the public got a mind?" cried Canby. "Doesn't the public understand that a good play might be ruined by these scoundrels?"

    Old Tinker returned his chartreuse glass to the case whence it came, a miniature sedan chair in silver and painted silk. "The public?" he said. "I've never been able to find out what that was. Just about the time I decided it was a trained sheep it turned out to be a cyclone. You think it's intelligent, and it plays the fool; you decide it's a fool, and it turns out to know more than you do. You make love to it, and it may sidle up and kiss you--or give you a good, hard kick!"

    "But if we make this a good play--"

    "It won't be a play at all," said Tinker, "unless the public thinks it's a good one. A play isn't something you read; it's something actors do on a stage; and they can't afford to do it unless the public pays to watch 'em. If it won't buy tickets, you haven't got a play; you've only got some typewriting."

    Canby glanced involuntarily at the blue-covered manuscript he had placed upon a table beside him. It had a guilty look.

    "I get confused," he said. "If the public's so flighty, why does it take so much stock in what these wolves print about a play?"

    "Print. That's it," old Tinker answered serenely. "Write your opinion in a letter or say it with your mouth, and it doesn't amount to anything. Print's different. You see some nonsense about yourself in a newspaper, and you think I'm an idiot for believing it. But you read nonsense about me, and you believe it. You don't stop and think; 'That's a lie; he isn't that sort of a man.' No. You just wonder why I'm such a darn fool."

    "Then these cannibals have got us where--"

    "Dotage!" Talbot Potter broke in, halting under the chandelier. "Tinker's reached his dotage!" He levelled a denouncing forefinger at the manager. "Do you mean to tell me that if I decide to go on with Mr. Canby's play any critic or combination or cabal of critics can keep it from being a success? Then I tell you, you're in your dotage! For one point, if I play this part they're going to say it's a big thing; I don't mean the play, of course, because you must know, yourself, Mr. Canby, we could bribe them into calling it a strong play. We know it isn't, and they'll know it isn't. What I mean is the characterization of 'Roderick Hanscom.' I tell you, if I do it, they're going to call it a big thing. They aren't all maniacs about everything made in France, thank heaven! Rostand! Ass! I'm not playing parts with a clothespin on the end of my nose!" And again he mimicked the departed visitor: "'This for my stirrup-cup: you cable Rostand tomorrow.' My soul! Does he think I want to play CHICKENS?"

    Sulphurously, he resumed his pacing of the floor.

    Old Tinker seemed unaffected by this outburst, but for that matter he seemed unaffected by anything. His dead gaze followed his employer's to-and-fro striding as a cat's follows a pendulum, but without the cat's curiosity about a pendulum. He never interrupted when Potter was speaking; and Canby noticed that whenever Potter talked at any length Tinker looked thoughtful and distant, like a mechanic so accustomed to the whirr and thunder of the machine-shop that he may indulge in reveries there. After a moment or two the old fellow ceased to follow the pendulum stride, and turned to the playwright.

    "I'll tell you the two surest ways to make what you call the public like a play, Mr. Canby," he said. "Nothing is sure, but these are the nearest to it. Make 'em laugh. I mean, make 'em laugh after they get home, or the next day in the office, any time they get to thinking about it. The other way is to get two actors for your lovers that the audience, young and old, can't help falling in love with; a young actor that the females in the audience think they'd like to marry, and a young actress that the males all think they'd like to marry. It doesn't matter much about the writing; just have something interfere between them from eight-fifteen until along about twenty-five minutes after ten. The two lovers don't necessarily have to know much about acting, either, though of course it's better if they happen to. The best stage-lover I ever knew, and the one that played in the most successes, did happen to understand acting thor--"

    "Who was that?" Potter interrupted fiercely. "Mounet-Sully?"

    "No. I meant Dora Preston."

    "Never heard of her!"

    "No," said the old man. "You wouldn't. They don't put up monuments to pretty actresses, nor write about them in school histories. She dropped dead in her dressing-room one night forty-two years ago. I was thinking of her to-day; something reminded me of her."

    "Was she a friend of yours, Mr. Tinker?" Canby asked.

    "Friend? No. I was an usher in the old Calumet Theatre, and she owned New York. She had this quality; every man in the audience fell in love with her. So did the women, too, for that matter, and the actors who played with her. When she played a love-scene, people who'd been married thirty years would sit and watch her and hold each other's hands--yes, with tears in their eyes. I've seen 'em. And after the performance, one night, the stage-door keeper, a man seventy years old, was caught kissing the latch of the door where she'd touched it; and he was sober, too. There was something about her looks and something about her voice you couldn't get away from. You couldn't tell to save you what it was, but after you'd seen her she'd seem to be with you for days, and you couldn't think much about anything else, even if you wanted to. People used to go around in a kind of spell; they couldn't think of anything or talk of anything but Dora Preston. It didn't matter much what she did; everything she did made you feel like a boy falling in love the first time. It made you think of apple-blossoms and moonlight just to look at her. She--"

    "See here, Mr. Canby"--Talbot Potter interrupted suddenly. He dropped into a chair and picked up the manuscript--"See here! I've got an idea that may save this play. Suppose we let 'Roderick Hanscom' make his sacrifice, not for the heroine, but because he's in love with the other girl--the ingenue--I've forgotten the name you call her in the script. I mean the part played by that little Miss Miss girl--Miss-what's-her-name-- Wanda Malone!"

    Canby stared at Potter in fascinated amazement, his straining eyes showing the whites above and below the pupils. It was the look of a man struck dumb by a sudden marvel of telepathy.

    "Why, yes," he said slowly, when he had recovered his breath, "I believe that would be a good idea!"
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