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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 18
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The Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 18 Post by :eagle75 Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :3051

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The Light Of The Star: A Novel - Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII

It was, indeed, the playwright. Each night he left his boarding-place, drawn by an impulse he could not resist, to walk slowly to and fro opposite the theatre entrance, calculating with agonized eye the meagre numbers of those who entered. At times he took his stand near the door in a shadowy nook (with coat-collar rolled high about his ears), in order to observe the passing stream, hoping, exulting, and suffering alternately as groups from the crowd paused for a moment to study the displayed photographs, only to pass on to other amusement with some careless allusion to the fallen star.

This hurt him worst of all--that these motes, these cheap little boys and girls, could now sneer at or pity Helen Merival. "I brought her to this," he repeated, with morbid sense of power. "When she met me she was queen of the city; now she is an object of pity."

This feeling of guilt, this egotism deepened each night as he watched the city's pleasure-seekers pace past the door. It was of no avail to say that the few who entered were of higher type than the many who passed. "The profession which Helen serves cannot live on the wishes of the few, the many must be pleased. To become exclusive in appeal is to die of hunger. This is why the sordid, commonplace playwrights and the business-like managers succeed while the idealists fail. There is an iron law of limitation here."

"That is why my influence is destructive," he added, and was reassured in the justice of his resolution to take himself out of Helen's life. "Everything I stand for is inimical to her interests. To follow my path is to eat dry crusts, to be without comfort. To amuse this great, moiling crowd, to dance for them like a monkey, to pander to their base passions, this means success, and so long as her acting does not smirch her own soul what does it matter?" In such wise he sometimes argued in his bitterness and wrath.

From the brilliant street, from the gay crowds rolling on in search of witless farce-comedy and trite melodrama, the brooding idealist climbed one night to the gallery to overlook a gloomy, empty auditorium. Concealing himself as best he could, he sat through the performance, tortured by some indefinable appeal in Helen's voice, hearing with cold and sinking heart the faint applause from the orchestra chairs which used to roar with bravos and sparkle with the clapping of white and jewelled hands.

There was something horrifying in this change. In his morbid and overwrought condition it seemed murderous. At last a new resolution set his lips in a stern line, and when the curtain fell on the last act his mind was made up. "I will write one more play for the sensation-loving fools, for these flabby business men and their capon-stuffed wives. I will mix them a dramatic cocktail that will make them sit up. I will create a dazzling role for Helen, one that will win back all her old-time admirers. They shall come like a roaring tide, and she shall recoup herself for every loss--in purse and prestige."

It was this night, when his face was white with suffering, that Helen caught a glimpse of him hanging across the railing of the upper balcony.

He went no more to see her play. In his small, shabby room in a musty house on one of the old side streets he set to work on his new plan. He wrote now without fervor, without elation, plodding along hour after hour, erasing, interlining, destroying, rewriting. He toiled terribly. He permitted himself no fancy flights. He calculated now. "I must have a young and beautiful duchess or countess," he mused, bitterly. "Our democratic public loves to see nobility. She must peril her honor for a lover--a wonderful fellow of the middle-class, not royal, but near it. The princess must masquerade in a man's clothing for some high purpose. There must be a lord high chamberlain or the like who discovers her on this mission to save her lover, and who uses his discovery to demand her hand in marriage for his son--"

In this cynical mood he worked, sustained only by the memory of "The Glittering Woman" whose power and beauty had once dazzled him. Slowly the new play took shape, and, try as he might, he could not keep out of it a line now and then of real drama--of literature. Each act was designed to end with a clarion call to the passions, and he was perfectly certain that the curtain would rise again and again at the close. At every point was glitter and the rush of heroics.

He lived sparely, seeing no one, going out only at night for a walk in the square. To send to his brother or his father for money he would not, not even to write his wonder-working drama. His letters home, while brief, were studiedly confident of tone. The play-acting business and all those connected with it stood very remote from the farming village in which Dr. Donald Douglass lived, and when he read from his son's letters references to his dramas his mind took but slight hold upon the words. His replies were brief and to the point. "Go back to your building and leave the play-actors to themselves. They're a poor, uneasy lot at the best." To him an architect was a man who built houses and barns, with a personal share in the physical labor, a wholesome, manly business. The son understood his father's prejudices, and they formed a barrier to his approach when in need.

On the morning of the fifteenth day _Alessandra went to the type-writer, and the weary playwright lifted his head and took a full, free breath. He was convinced beyond any question that this melodrama would please. It had all the elements which he despised, therefore it must succeed. His desire to see Helen now overpowered him. Worn with his toil and exultant in his freedom, he went out into the street to see what the world was doing.

_Enid's Choice was still running. A slight gain at the end of the first week had enabled Helen to withhold her surrender to mammon. The second week increased the attendance, but the loss on the two plays was now very heavy, and Hugh and Westervelt and all her friends as well urged her to give way to the imperious public; but some deep loyalty to Douglass, some reason which she was not free to give, made her say, "No, while there is the slightest hope I am going to keep on." To her mother she said: "They are associated in my mind with something sweet and fine--a man's aspiration. They taste good in my mouth after all these years of rancid melodrama."

To herself she said: "If they succeed--if they win the public--my lover will come back. He can then come as a conqueror." And the hope of this, the almost certain happiness and honor which awaited them both led her to devise new methods of letting the great non-theatre-going public know that in George Douglass's _Enid they might be comforted--that it was, indeed, a dramatic sign of promise. "We will give it a faithful trial here, then go on the road. Life is less strenuous in the smaller towns--they have time to think."

Hugh and Westervelt counselled against any form of advertising that would seem to set the play in a class by itself, but Helen, made keen by her suffering, bluntly replied: "You are both wrong, utterly wrong. Our only possible chance of success lies in reaching that vast, sane, thoughtful public which seldom or never goes to the theatre. This public very properly holds a prejudice against the theatrical world, but it will welcome a play which is high and poetic without being dull. This public is so vast it makes the ordinary theatre-going public seem but a handful. We must change all our methods of printing."

These ideas were sourly adopted in the third week, just when a note from Douglass reached her by the hand of a special messenger. In this letter he said: "I have completed another play. I have been grubbing night and day with incessant struggle to put myself and all my ideals aside--to give the public what it wants--to win your old admirers back, in order that I might see you playing once more to crowded and brilliant houses. It will succeed because it is diametrically opposed to all I have expressed. It is my sacrifice. Will you accept it? Will you read my play? Shall I send it to you?"

Something went out from this letter which hurt Helen deeply. First of all there was a certain humble aloofness in his attitude which troubled her, but more significant still was his confessed departure from his ideals. Her brave and splendid lover had surrendered to the enemy--for her sake. Her first impulse was to write refusing to accept his sacrifice. But on second thought she craftily wrote: "I do not like to think of you writing to please the public, which I have put aside, but come and bring your play. I cannot believe that you have really written down to a melodramatic audience. What I will do I cannot say till I have seen your piece. Where have you kept yourself? Have you been West? Come and tell me all about it."

To this self-contained note he replied by sending the drama. "No, I cannot come till Hugh and you have read and accepted this play. I want your manager to pass on _Alessandra_. You know what I mean. You are an idealist like myself. You will condemn this drama, but Westervelt may see in it a chance to restore the glitter to his theatre. Ask them both to read it--without letting them know who wrote it. If they accept it, then I can meet them again on equal terms. I long to see you; but I am in disgrace and infinitely poorer than when I first met you."

Over this letter Helen pondered long. Her first impulse was to send the play back without reading it, but her love suggested another subterfuge. "I will do his will, and if Hugh and Westervelt find the play acceptable I will share in his triumph. But I will not do the play except as a last resort--for his sake. _Enid is more than holding its own. So long as it does I will not permit him to lower his splendid powers."

To Hugh she carelessly said: "Here is another play--a melodrama, to judge from the title. Look it over and see if there is anything in it."

As plays were constantly coming in to them, Hugh took this one quite as a matter of routine, with expectation of being bored. He was a little surprised next morning when she asked, "Did you look into that manuscript?"

He answered: "No. I didn't get time."

She could hardly conceal her impatience. "I wish you'd go over it this morning. From the title it's one of those middle-age Italian things that costume well."

"Oh, is it?" he exclaimed. "Well, I'll get right at it." Her interest in it more than the title moved him. It was a most hopeful sign of weakening on her part.

He came to lunch full of enthusiasm. "Say, sis, that play is a corker. There is a part in it that sees the _Baroness and goes her one better. If the last act keeps up we've got a prize-winner. Who's Edwin Baxter, anyhow?"

Helen quietly stirred her tea. "I never heard the name before. A new man in the theatrical world, apparently."

"Well, he's all right. I'm going over the whole thing again. Have you read it?"

"No, I thought best to let you and Westervelt decide this time. I merely glanced at it."

"Well, it looks like the thing to pull us out of our hole."

That night Westervelt came behind the scenes with shining face. "I hope you will consent to do this new piece; it is a cracker-jack." He grew cautious. "It really is an immensely better piece of work than _The Baroness_, and yet it has elements of popularity. I have read it hastily. I shall study it to-night. If it looks as big to me to-morrow morning as now I will return to the old arrangement with you--if you wish."

"How is the house to-night?" she asked.

His face dropped. "No better than last night." He shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, ten or fifteen dollars, maybe. We can play all winter to two hundred dollars a night with this play. I do not understand such audiences. Apparently each man sends just one to take his place. There is no increase."

"Well, report to me to-morrow about _Alessandra_, then I will decide upon the whole matter."

In spite of herself she shared in the glow which shone on the faces of her supports, for the word had been passed to the leading members that they were going back to the old drama. "They've found a new play--a corking melodrama."

Royleston straightened. "What's the subject?"

"Middle-age Italian intrigue, so Hugh says--bully costumes--a wonder of a part for Merival."

"Then we are on velvet again," said Royleston.

The influence of the news ran through the action on the stage. The performance took on spirit and gusto. The audience immediately felt the glow of the players' enthusiasm, and warmed to both actress and playwright, and the curtain went down to the most vigorous applause of the entire run. But Westervelt did not perceive this, so engrossed was he in the new manuscript. Reading was prodigious labor for him--required all his attention.

He was at the hotel early the next morning, impatient to see his star. As he waited he figured on a little pad. His face was flushed as if with drink. His eyes swam with tears of joy, and when Helen appeared he took her hand in both his fat pads, crying out:

"My dear lady, we have found you a new play. It is to be a big production. It will cost a barrel of money to put it on, but it is a winner. Tell the writer to come on and talk terms."

Helen remained quite cool. "You go too fast, Herr Westervelt. I have not read the piece. I may not like the title role."

The manager winced. "You will like it--you must like it. It is a wonderful part. The costuming is magnificent--the scenes superb."

"Is there any text?"

Westervelt did not feel the sarcasm. "Excellent text. It is not Sardou--of course not--but it is of his school, and very well done indeed. The situations are not new, but they are powerfully worked out. I am anxious to secure it. If not for you, for some one else."

"Very well. I will read the manuscript. If I like it I will send for the author."

With this show of tepid interest on the part of his star Westervelt had to be content. To Hugh he complained: "The influence of that crazy Douglass is strong with her yet. I'm afraid she will turn down this part."

Hugh was also alarmed by her indifference, and at frequent intervals during the day asked how she was getting on with the reading.

To this query she each time replied: "Slowly. I'm giving it careful thought."

She was, indeed, struggling with her tempted self. She was more deeply curious to read the manuscript than any one else could possibly be, and yet she feared to open the envelope which contained it. She did not wish to be in any sense a party to her lover's surrender. She knew that he must have written falsely and without conviction to have made such a profound impression on Westervelt. The very fact that the theme was Italian, and of the Middle Ages, was a proof of his abandonment of a cardinal principle, for he had often told her how he hated all that sort of thing. "What kind of a national drama would that be which dealt entirely with French or Italian mediaeval heroes?" he had once asked, with vast scorn.

It would win back her former worshippers, she felt sure of that. The theatre would fill again with men whose palates required the highly seasoned, the far-fetched. The critics would rejoice in their victory, and welcome Helen Merival to her rightful place with added fervor. The bill-boards would glow again with magnificent posters of Helen Merival, as _Alessandra_, stooping with wild eyes and streaming hair over her slain paramour on the marble stairway, a dagger in her hand. People would crowd again behind the scenes at the close of the play. The magazines would add their chorus of praise.

And over against this stood the slim, poetic figure of _Enid_, so white of soul, so simple, so elemental of appeal. A whole world lay between the two parts. All that each stood for was diametrically opposed to the other. One was modern as the telephone, true, sound, and revealing. The other false from beginning to end, belonging to a world that never existed, a brilliant, flashing pageant, a struggle of beasts in robes of gold and velvet--assassins dancing in jewelled garters. Every scene, every motion was worn with use on the stage, and yet her own romance, her happiness, seemed to depend upon her capitulation as well as his.

"If they accept _Alessandra he will come back to me proudly--at least with a sense of victory over his ignoble enemies. If I return it he will know I am right, but will still be left so deeply in my debt that he will never come to see me again." And with this thought she determined upon a course of action which led at least to a meeting and to a reconciliation between the author and the manager, and with the thought of seeing him again her heart grew light.

When she came to the theatre at night Westervelt was waiting at the door.

"Well?" he asked, anxiously. "What do you think of it?"

"I have sent for the author," she answered, coldly. "He will meet me to-morrow at eleven. Come to the hotel and I will introduce him to you."

"Splendid! splendid!" exclaimed the manager. "You found it suited to you! A great part, eh?"

"I like it better than _The Baroness_," she replied, and left him broad-faced with joy.

"She is coming sensible again," he chuckled. "Now that that crank is out of the way we shall see her as she was--triumphant."

Again the audience responded to every line she spoke, and as she played something reassuring came up to her from the faces below. The house was perceptibly less empty, but the comfort arose from something more intangible than an increase of filled chairs. "I believe the tide has turned," she thought, exultantly, but dared not say so to Hugh.

That night she sent a note to Douglass, and the words of her message filled him with mingled feelings of exultation and bitterness:

"You have won! Westervelt and Hugh are crazy to meet the author of _Alessandra_. They see a great success for you, for me, for all of us. Westervelt is ready to pour out his money to stage the thing gorgeously. Come to-morrow to meet them. Come proudly. You will find them both ready to take your hand--eager to acknowledge that they have misjudged you. We have both made a fight for good work and failed. No one can blame us if we yield to necessity."

The thought of once more meeting her, of facing her managers with confident gaze on equal terms, made Douglass tremble with excitement. He dressed with care, attempting as best he could to put away all the dust and odors of his miserable tenement, and went forth looking much like the old-time, self-confident youth who faced down the clerk. His mind ran over every word in Helen's note a dozen times, extracting each time new and hidden meanings.

"If it is the great success they think it, my fortune is made." His spirits began to overleap all bounds. "It will enable me to meet her as an equal--not in worth," he acknowledged--"she is so much finer and nobler than any man that ever lived--but I will at least be something more than a tramp kennelled in a musty hole." His mind took another flight. "I can go home with pride also. Oh, success is a sovereign thing. Think of Hugh and Westervelt waiting to welcome me--and Helen!"

When he thought of her his confident air failed him, his face flushed, his hands felt numb. She shone now like a far-off violet star. She had recovered her aloofness, her allurement in his mind, and it was difficult for him to realize that he had once known her intimately and that he had treated her inconsiderately. "I must have been mad," he exclaimed. It seemed months since he had looked into her face.

The clerk he dreaded to meet was off duty, and as the elevator boy knew him he did not approach the desk, but went at once to Helen's apartments.

She did not meet him at the door as he had foolishly expected. Delia, the maid, greeted him with a smile, and led him back to the reception-room and left him alone.

He heard Helen's voice, the rustle of her dress, and then she stood before him. As he looked into her face and read love and pity in her eyes he lost all fear, all doubt, and caught her hand in both of his, unable to speak a word in his defence--unable even to tell her of his gratitude and love.

She recovered herself first, and, drawing back, looked at him searchingly. "You poor fellow, you've been working like mad. You are ill!"

"No, I am not ill--only tired. I have had only one thought, one aim since I saw you last, that was to write something to restore you to your old place----"

"I do not want to be restored. Now listen, Lord Douglass. If I do _Alessandra_, it is because we both need the money and the prestige; but I do not despair, and you must not. Please let me manage this whole affair; will you?"

"I am your slave."

"Don't say such things. I don't want you to be humble. I want you to be as brave, as proud as before."

She said this in such a tone that he rose to it. His face reset in lines of resolution. "I will not be humble with any other human being but you. I worship you."

She stood for a moment looking at him fixedly, a smile of pride and tender dream on her lips, then said, "You must not say such things to me--not now." The bell rang. "Here comes your new-found admirers," she exclaimed, gleefully. "Now, you sit here, a little in the shadow, and I will bring them in."

Douglass heard Hugh ask, eagerly, "Is he here?"

"Yes, he is waiting for you." A moment later she re-entered, followed closely by Westervelt. "Herr Westervelt, let me introduce Mr. George Douglass, author of _Alessandra_, _Lillian's Duty_, and _Enid's Choice_."

For an instant Westervelt's face was a confused, lumpy mass of amazement and resentment; then he capitulated, quick to know on which side his bread was buttered, and, flinging out a fat hand, he roared:

"Very good joke. Ha! ha! You have fooled me completely. Mr. Douglass, I congratulate you. You have now given Helen Merival the best part she has ever had. You found we were right, eh?"

Douglass remained a little stiff. "Yes, for the present we'll say you are right; but the time is coming--"

Hugh came forward with less of enthusiasm, but his wall of reserve was melting. "I'm mighty glad to know that you wrote _Alessandra_, Douglass. It is worthy of Sardou, and it will win back every dollar we've lost in the other plays."

"That's what I wrote it for," said Douglass, sombrely.

Westervelt had no further scruples--no reservations. "Well, now, as to terms and date of production. Let's get to business."

Helen interposed. "No more of that for to-day. Mr. Douglass is tired and needs recreation. Leave business till to-morrow. Come, let us go to mother; she is anxious to see you--and you are to breakfast with us in the good old spirit."

It was sweet to sit with them again on the old footing--to be released from his load of guilty responsibility. To face the shining table, the dear old mother--and Helen! Something indefinably domestic and tender came from her hesitating speech and shone in her liquid, beaming eyes.

The room swam in vivid sunshine, and seemed thus to typify the toiler's escape from poverty and defeat.

"Don't expect me to talk," he said, slowly, strangely. "I'm too dazed, too happy to think clearly. I can't believe it. I have lived two months in a horrible nightmare; but now that the business men, the practical ones, say you are to be saved by me, I must believe it. I would be perfectly happy if only I had won the success on my own lines without compromise."

"Put that aside," she commanded, softly. "The fuller success will come. We have that to work towards."

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CHAPTER XVIIThis letter came to Helen with her coffee, and the reading of it blotted out the glory of the morning, filling her eyes with smarting tears. It put a sudden ache into her heart, a fierce resentment. At the moment his assumed humbleness, his self-derision, his confession of failure irritated her. "I don't want you to bend and bow," she thought, as if speaking to him. "I'd rather you were fierce and hard, as you were last night." She read on to the end, so deeply moved that she could scarcely see the lines. Her resentment melted away and a
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