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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 8
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The Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 8 Post by :pGwtech Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :2181

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The Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Deprivation of Helen's companionship even for a day produced in Douglass such longing that his hours were misery, and, though Sunday was long and lonely, Monday stretched to an intolerable length. He became greatly disturbed, and could neither work nor sit still, so active was his imagination. He tried to sleep, but could not, even though his nerves were twitching for want of it; and at last, in desperate resolution, he set himself the task of walking to Grant's tomb and back, in the hope that physical weariness would benumb his restless brain. This good result followed. He was in deep slumber when the bell-boy rapped at his door and called, "Half-past six, sir."

He sprang up, moved by the thought, "In two hours Helen will be entering upon that first great scene," and for the first time gave serious consideration to the question of an audience. "I hope Westervelt has neglected nothing. It would be shameful if Helen played to a single empty seat. I will give tickets away on the sidewalk rather than have it so. But, good Heavens, such a condition is impossible!"

After dressing with great care, he hastened directly to the theatre. It was early, and as he stepped into the entrance he found only the attendants, smiling, expectant, in their places. A doubt of success filled him with sudden weakness, and he slipped out on the street again, not caring to be recognized by any one at that hour. "They will laugh at my boyish excitement," he said, shamefacedly.

Broadway, the chief thoroughfare of the pleasure-seekers of all America, was just beginning to thicken with life. The cafes were sending forth gayly dressed groups of diners jovially crowding into their waiting carriages. Automobiles and cabs were rushing northward to meet the theatre-goers of the up-town streets, while the humbler patrons of the "family circles" and "galleries" of the play-houses lower down were moving southward on foot, sharing for a few moments in the brilliancy and wealth of the upper avenue. The surface cars, clamorous, irritable, and timid, jammed at the crossings like sheep at a river-ford, while overhead the electric trains thundered to and fro, crowded with other citizens also theatre-bound. It seemed that the whole metropolis, alert to the drama, had flung its health and wealth into one narrow stream, and yet, "in all these thousands of careless citizens, who thinks of _Lillian's Duty_?" thought the unnerved playwright.

"What do these laughing, insatiate amusement-seekers care about any one's duty? They are out to enjoy life. They are the well-to-do, the well-fed, the careless livers. Many of them are keen, relentless business-men wearied by the day's toil. They are now seeking relaxation, and not at all concerned with acquiring wisdom or grace. They are, indeed, the very kind of men to whom my play sets the cold steel, and their wives, of higher purpose, of gentler wills, are, nevertheless, quite as incapable of steady and serious thought. Not one of them has any interest in the problem I have set myself to delineate."

He was saved from utter rout by remembrance of Helen. He recalled the Wondrous Woman as she had seemed to him of old, striving to regain his former sense of her power, her irresistible fascination. He assured himself that her indirect influence over the city had been proven to be enormous, almost fantastic, though her worshippers knew the real woman not at all, allured only by the aureoled actress. Yes, she would triumph, even if the play failed, for they would see her at last in a congenial role wherein her nobility, her intellectual power would be given full and free expression. Her appeal to her worshippers would be doubled.

When he returned to the theatre a throng of people filled the entrance-way, and he was emboldened to pass in--even bowed to the attendants and to Hugh, who stood in the lobby, in shining raiment, a _boutonniere in his coat, his face radiating confidence and pride.

"We've got 'em coming," he announced, with glee. "We are all sold out--not a seat left, and only the necessary 'paper' out. They're curious to see her in a new role. You are made!"

"I hope so," replied the playwright, weakly. "Tuesday night tells the story."

Hugh laughed. "Why, man, I believe you're scared. We're all right. I can sniff victory in the air."

This confidence, so far from inspiriting Douglass, still further depressed him, and he passed in and on up into the second gallery, where he had privately purchased a reserved seat with intent to sense for himself the feeling of the upper part of the house during the first act. Keeping his muffler pinned close so that his evening dress escaped notice, he found his way down to the railing quite secure from recognition by any one at the peep-hole of the curtain or in the boxes, and there took his seat to watch the late-comers ripple down the aisles. He was experienced enough to know that "first-nighters" do not always count and that they are sometimes false prophets, and yet he could not suppress a growing exaltation as the beautiful auditorium filled with men and women such as he had himself often called "representative," and, best of all, many of the city's artists and literarians were present.

He knew also that the dramatic critics were assembling, jaded and worn with ceaseless attendance on worthless dramas, a condition which should have fitted them for the keener enjoyment of any fresh, original work, but he did not deceive himself. He knew from their snarling onslaughts on plays he had praised that they were not to be pleased with anything--at least not all of them at the same time. That they were friendly to Helen he knew, that they would praise her he was assured, but that they would "slate" his play he was beginning to find inevitable.

As the curtain rose on the first scene he felt the full force of Helen's words, "You won't enjoy the performance at all." He began now to pay for the joy he had taken in her companionship. He knew the weakness of every actor, and suffered with them and for them. Royleston from the first tortured him by mumbling his lines, palpably "faking" at times. "The idiot, he'll fail to give his cues!" muttered Douglass. "He'll ruin the play." The children scared him also, they were so important to Helen at the close of the act.

At last the star came on--so quietly that the audience did not at the moment recognize her, but when those nearest the stage started a greeting to her it was taken up all over the shining house--a magnificent "hand."

Never before had Helen Merival appeared before an audience in character so near her own good self, and the lovely simplicity of her manner came as a revelation to those of her admirers who had longed to know more of her private character. For several minutes they applauded while she smilingly bowed, but at last the clapping died away, and each auditor shrugged himself into an easy posture in his chair, waiting for the great star to take up her role.

This she did with a security and repose of manner which thrilled Douglass in spite of his intimate knowledge of her work at rehearsals. The subtlety of her reading, the quiet, controlled precision and grace of her action restored his confidence in her power. "She has them in her hand. She cannot fail."

The act closed triumphantly, though some among the audience began to wince. Helen came before the curtain several times, and each time with eyes that searched for some one, and Douglass knew with definiteness that she sought her playwright in order that she might share her triumph with him. But a perverse mood had seized him. "This is all very well, but wait till the men realize the message of the play," he muttered, and lifted the programme to hide his face.

A buzz of excited comment rose from below, and though he could not hear a word beyond the water-boy's call he was able to imagine the comment.

"Why, how lovely! I didn't suppose Helen Merival could do a sweet, domestic thing like that."

"Isn't her gown exquisite? I've heard she is a dainty dresser in real life, quite removed from the kind of thing she wears on the stage. I wish she were not so seclusive. I'd like to know her."

"But do you suppose this is her real self?"

"It must be. She doesn't seem to be acting at all. I must say I prefer her in her usual parts."

"She's wonderful as _The Baroness_."

"I never let my daughters see her in those dreadful characters--they are too bold; but they are both here to-night. I understood it was to be quite a departure."

Douglass, knowing well that Hugh and the manager were searching for him, sat with face bent low until the lights were again lowered. "Now comes the first assault. Now we will see them wince."

The second act was distinctly less pleasing to those who sat below him in the orchestra and dress circle. Applause was still hearty, but it lacked the fervor of the first act. He could see men turn and whisper to one another now and then. They laughed, of course, and remarked each to the other, "Brown, you're getting a 'slat' to-night."

"They are cheering the actress, not the play," observed the author.

The gallery, less sensitive or more genuinely patriotic, thundered on, applauding the lines as well as the growing power of Helen's impersonation. Royleston was at last beginning to play, the fumes of his heavy dinner having cleared away. He began to grip his lines, and that gave the star her first opportunity to forget his weakness and throw herself into her part. All in all, only a very discriminating ear could have detected a falling-off of favor in this act. The curtain was lifted four times, and a few feeble cries for the author were heard, chiefly from the first balcony.

Here was the point whereat his hoped-for triumph was to have begun, but it did not. He was touched by an invisible hand which kept him to his seat, though he knew that Helen was waiting for him to receive, hand-in-hand with her, the honors of the act.

Some foreknowledge of defeat clarified the young author's vision, and a bitter melancholy crept over him as the third act unrolled. "They will go out," he said to himself, "and they will not come back for the last act. The play is doomed to disaster." And a flame of hatred rose in his heart against the audience. "They are brutes!" he muttered.

The scenes were deeply exciting, the clash of interest upon interest was swift, novel in sequence, and most dramatic in outcome, but the applause was sharp and spasmodic, not long continued and hearty as before. Some of the men who had clapped loudest at the opening now sat gnawing their mustaches in sullen resentment.

Douglass divined their thought: "This is a confidence game. We came to be amused, and this fellow instructs in sociology. We didn't cough up two dollars to listen to a sermon; we came to be rested. There's trouble enough in the street without displaying it in a place of amusement. The fellow ought to be cut out."

Others ceased to cheer because both acting and play had mounted beyond their understanding. Its grim humor, its pitiless character-drawing, wearied them. Audience and play, speaking generally, were at cross-purposes. A minority, it was true, caught every point, shouting with great joy, and a few, who disapproved of the play, but were most devoted admirers of Helen's art, joined half-heartedly in their applause. But the act closed dismally, notwithstanding its tremendous climax. A chill east wind had swept over the auditorium and a few sensitive souls shivered. "What right has Helen Merival to do a thing like this? What possesses her? It must be true that she is infatuated with this young man and produces his dreadful plays to please him."

"They say she is carried away with him. He's very handsome, they tell me. I wish they'd call him out."

A buzz of complaining talk on the part of those aggrieved filled in the interlude. The few who believed in the drama were valiant in its defence, but their arguments did not add to the good-will of those who loved the actress but detested the play.

"This won't do," said the most authoritative critic, as a detachment lined up at the bar of the neighboring saloon. "Merival must lop off this young dramatist or he'll 'queer' her with her best friends. She mustn't attempt to force this kind of thing down our throats."

"He won't last a week," said another.

Their finality of tone resembled that of emperors and sultans in counsel.

Douglass, sitting humped and motionless among his gallery auditors, was clearly aware that Helen was weary and agitated, yet he remained in his seat, his brain surging with rebellious passion.

His perverse pride was now joined by shame, who seized him by the other arm and held him prisoner. He felt like fleeing down the fire-escape. The thought of running the gauntlet of the smirking attendants, the possibility of meeting some of the exultant dramatic critics, most of whom were there to cut him to pieces, revolted him. Their joyous grins were harder to face than cannon, therefore he cowered in his place during the long wait, his mind awhirl, his teeth set hard.

There were plenty of empty seats in the orchestra when the curtain lifted on the last act. Several of the critics failed to return. The playwright dared not look at his watch, for the scenes were dragging interminably. His muscles ached with the sort of fatigue one feels when riding in a slow train, and he detected himself pushing with his feet as if to hurry the action. The galleries did not display an empty bench, but he took small comfort in this, for he was not a believer in the old-time theory of pleasing the gallery. "In this city the two-dollar seats must be filled," he said. "Helen is ruined if she loses them."

He began to pity her and to blame himself. "What right had I to force my ferocious theories upon her?" he asked himself, and at the moment it seemed that he had completely destroyed her prestige. She was plainly dispirited, and her auditors looked at one another in astonishment. "Can this sad woman in gray, struggling with a cold audience and a group of dismayed actors, be the brilliant and beautiful Helen Merival?"

That a part of this effect--most of it, in fact--lay in the role of _Lillian they had not penetration enough to distinguish; they began to doubt whether she had ever been the very great success and the powerful woman they had supposed her to be.

The play did not really close, the audience began to dribble out before the last half of the act began, and the curtain went down on the final scene while scores of women were putting on their wraps. A loyal few called Helen before the curtain, and her brave attempt to smile made every friendly heart bleed.

Douglass, stiff and sore, as one who has been cudgelled, rose with the crowd and made his way to one of the outside exits, eager to escape recognition, to become one of the indistinguishable figures of the street.

A couple of tousled-headed students going down the stairway before him tossed him his first and only crumb of comfort. "It won't go, of course," said one, in a tone of conviction, "but it's a great play all the same."

"Right, old man," replied the other, with the decision of a master. "It's too good for this town. What New York wants is a continuous variety show."

Douglass knew keenly, deeply, that Helen needed him--was looking for him--but the thought of those who would be near at their meeting made his entrance of the stage door impossible. He walked aimlessly, drifting with the current up the street, throbbing, tense, and hot with anger, shame, and despair. At the moment all seemed lost--his play, his own position, and Helen. Helen would surely drop him. The incredible had happened--he had not merely defeated himself, he had brought battle and pain and a stinging reproof to a splendid, triumphant woman. The enormous egotism involved in this he did not at the moment apprehend. He was like a wounded animal, content merely to escape.

He longed to reach her, to beg her pardon, to absolve her from any promise, and yet he could not face Westervelt. He revolted at the thought of meeting Royleston and Miss Carmichael and Hugh. "No; it is impossible. I will wait for her at the hotel."

At this word he was filled with a new terror. "The clerks and the bell-boys will have learned of my failure. I cannot face them to-night." And he turned and fled as if confronted by serpents. "And yet I must send a message. I must thank Helen and set her free. She must not go through another such night for my sake."

He ended by dropping into another hotel to write her a passionate note, which he sent by a messenger:

 

"Forgive me for the part I have played in bringing this disaster upon you. I had no idea that anything I could say or do would so deeply injure you--you the Wondrous One. It was incredible--their disdain of you. I was a fool, a selfish boaster, to allow you to go into this thing. The possible loss of money we both discussed, but that any words of mine could injure you as an artist never came to me. Believe me, my dearest friend, I am astounded. I am crushed with the thought, and I dare not show my face among your friends. I feel like an assassin. I will call to-morrow--I can't do it to-night. I am bleeding at the heart because I have made you share the shame and failure which I feel to-night are always to be mine. I was born to be of the minority. Please don't give another thought to me or my play. Go your own way. Get back to the plays that please people. Be happy. You have the right to be happy, and I am a selfish, unthinking criminal whom you would better forget. Don't waste another dollar or another moment on my play--it is madness. I am overwhelmed with my debt to you, but I shall repay it some day."

 

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CHAPTER VIIAt the last moment, when face to face with the public, young Douglass lost courage. The stake for which he played was so great! Like a man who has put his last dollar upon the hazard, he was ready to snatch his gold from the boards. The whole thing seemed weakly tenuous at dress-rehearsal, and Royleston, half-drunk as usual, persistently bungled his lines. The children in the second act squeaked like nervous poll-parrots, and even Helen's sunny brow was darkened by a frown as her leading man stumbled along to a dead halt again and again. "Mr. Royleston," she said,
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