The Song and the Sergeant by O Henry
Half a dozen people supping at a table in one of the upper-Broadway all-night restaurants were making too much noise. Three times the manager walked past them with a politely warning glance; but their argument had waxed too warm to be quelled by a manager's gaze. It was midnight, and the restaurant was filled with patrons from the theatres of that district. Some among the dispersed audiences must have recognized among the quarrelsome sextet the faces of the players belonging to the Carroll Comedy Company.
Four of the six made up the company. Another was the author of the comedietta, "A Gay Coquette," which the quartette of layers had been presenting with fair success at several vaudeville houses in the city. The sixth at the table was a person inconsequent in the realm of art, but one at whose bidding many lobsters had perished.
Loudly the six maintained their clamorous debate. No one of the Party was silent except when answers were stormed from him by the excited ones. That was the comedian of "A Gay Coquette." He was a young man with a face even too melancholy for his profession.
The oral warfare of four immoderate tongues was directed at Miss Clarice Carroll, the twinkling star of the small aggregation. Excepting the downcast comedian, all members of the party united in casting upon her with vehemence the blame of some momentous misfortune. Fifty times they told her: "It is your fault, Clarice- it is you alone who spoilt the scene. It is only of late that you have acted this way. At this rate the sketch will have to be taken off."
Miss Carroll was a match for any four. Gallic ancestry gave her a vivacity that could easily mount to fury. Her large eyes flashed a scorching denial at her accusers. Her slender, eloquent arms constantly menaced the tableware. Her high, clear soprano voice rose to what would have been a scream had it not possessed so pure a musical quality. She hurled back at the attacking four their denunciations in tones sweet, but of too great carrying power for a Broadway restaurant.
Finally they exhausted her patience both as a woman and an artist. She sprang up like a panther, managed to smash half a dozen plates and glasses with one royal sweep of her arm, and defied her critics. They rose and wrangled more loudly. The comedian sighed and looked a trifle sadder and disinterested. The manager came tripping and suggested peace. He was told to go to the popular synonym for war so promptly that the affair might have happened at The Hague.
Thus was the manager angered. He made a sign with his hand and a waiter slipped out of the door. In twenty minutes the party of six was in a police station facing a grizzled and philosophical desk sergeant.
"Disorderly conduct in a restaurant," said the police- man who had brought the party in.
The author of "A Gay Coquette" stepped to the front. He wore nose-glasses and evening clothes, even if his shoes had been tans before they met the patent-leather-polish bottle.
"Mr. Sergeant," said he, out of his throat, like Actor Irving, "I would like to protest against this arrest. The company of actors who are performing in a little play that I have written, in company with a friend and myself were having a little supper. We became deeply interested in the discussion as to which one of the cast is responsible for a scene in the sketch that lately has fallen so flat that the piece is about to become a failure. We may have been rather noisy and intolerant of interruption by the restaurant people; but the matter was of considerable importance to all of us. You see that we are sober and are not the kind of people who desire to raise disturbances. I hope that the case will not be pressed and that we may be allowed to go."
"Who makes the charge?" asked the sergeant.
"Me," said a white-aproned voice in the rear. "De restaurant sent me to. De gang was raisin' a rough- house and breakin' dishes."
"The dishes were paid for," said the playwright. "They were not broken purposely. In her anger, because we remonstrated with her for spoiling the scene, Miss -- "
"It's not true, sergeant," cried the clear voice of Miss. Clarice Carroll. In a long coat of tan silk and a red- plumed hat, she bounded before the desk.
"It's not my fault," she cried indignantly. "How- dare they say such a thing! I've played the title rôle ever since it was staged, and if you want to know who made it a success, ask the public -- that's all."
"What Miss Carroll says is true in part," said the author. "For five months the comedietta was a drawing- card in the best houses. But during the last two weeks it has lost favour. There is one scene in it in which Miss Carroll made a big hit. Now she hardly gets a hand out of it. She spoils it by acting it entirely different from her old way."
"It is not my fault," reiterated the actress.
"There are only two of you on in the scene," argued the playwright hotly, "you and Delmars, here -- "
"Then it's his fault," declared Miss Carroll, with a lightning glance of scorn from her dark eyes. The comedian caught it, and gazed with increased melancholy at the panels of the sergeant's desk.
The night was a dull one in that particular police station.
The sergeant's long-blunted curiosity awoke a little.
"I've heard you," he said to the author. And then he addressed the thin-faced and ascetic-looking lady of the company who played "Aunt Turnip-top" in the little comedy.
"Who do you think spoils the scene you are fussing about?" he asked.
"I'm no knocker," said that lady, "and everybody knows it. So, when I say that Clarice falls down every time in that scene I'm judging her art and not herself. She was great in it once. She does it something fierce now. It'll dope the show if she keeps it up."
The sergeant looked at the comedian.
"You and the lady have this scene together, I under- stand. I suppose there's no use asking you which one of you queers it?"
The comedian avoided the direct rays from the two fixed stars of Miss Carroll's eyes.
"I don't know," he said, looking down at his patent- leather toes.
"Are you one of the actors?" asked the sergeant of a dwarfish youth with a middle-aged face.
"Why, say!" replied the last Thespian witness, "you don't notice any tin spear in my hands, do you? You haven't heard me shout: 'See, the Emperor comes!' since I've been in here, have you? I guess I'm on the stage long enough for 'em not to start a panic by mistaking me for a thin curl of smoke rising above the footlights."
"In your opinion, if you've got one," said the sergeant, "is the frost that gathers on the scene in question the work of the lady or the gentleman who takes part in it?"
The middle-aged youth looked pained.
"I regret to say," he answered, "that Miss Carroll seems to have lost her grip on that scene. She's all right in the rest of the play, but -- but I tell you, sergeant, she can do it -- she has done it equal to any of 'em -- and she can do it again."
Miss Carroll ran forward, glowing and palpitating.
"Thank you, Jimmy, for the first good word I've had in many a day," she cried. And then she turned her eager face toward the desk.
"I'll show you, sergeant, whether I am to blame. I'll show them whether I can do that same. Come, Mr. Delmars; let us begin. You will let us, won't you, sergeant?"
"How long will it take?" asked the sergeant, dubiously.
"Eight minutes," said the playwright. "The entire play consumes but thirty."
"You may go ahead," said the sergeant. "Most of you seem to side against the little lady. Maybe she had a right to crack up a saucer or two in that restaurant. We'll see how she does the turn before we take that up."
The matron of the police station had been standing near, listening to the singular argument. She came nigher and stood near the sergeant's chair. Two or three of the reserves strolled in, big and yawning.
"Before beginning the scene," said the playwright, "and assuming that you have not seen a production of 'A Gay Coquette,' I will make a brief but necessary explanation. It is a musical-farce-comedy -- burlesque-comedietta. As the title implies, Miss Carroll's rôle is that of a gay, rollicking, mischievous, heartless coquette. She sustains that character throughout the entire comedy part of the production. And I have designed the extravaganza features so that she may preserve and present the same coquettish idea.
"Now, the scene in which we take exception to Miss Carroll's acting is called the 'gorilla dance.' She is costumed to represent a wood nymph, and there is a great song-and-dance scene with a gorilla -- played by Mr. Delmars, the comedian. A tropical-forest stage is set.
"That used to get four and five recalls. The main thing was the acting and the dance -- it was the funniest thing in New York for five months. Delmars's song, 'I'll Woo Thee to My Sylvan Home,' while he and Miss Carroll were cutting hide-and-seek capers among the tropical plants, was a winner."
"What's the trouble with the scene now?" asked the sergeant.
"Miss Carroll spoils it right in the middle of it," said the playwright wrathfully.
With a wide gesture of her ever-moving arms the actress waved back the little group of spectators, leaving a space in front of the desk for the scene of her vindication or fall. Then she whipped off her long tan cloak and tossed it across the arm of the policeman who still stood officially among them.
Miss Carroll had gone to supper well cloaked, but in the costume of the tropic wood nymph. A skirt of fern leaves touched her knee; she was like a humming- bird -- green and golden and purple.
And then she danced a fluttering, fantastic dance, so agile and light and mazy in her steps that the other three members of the Carroll Comedy Company broke into applause at the art of it.
And at the proper time Delmars leaped out at her side, mimicking the uncouth, hideous bounds of the gorilla so funnily that the grizzled sergeant himself gave a short laugh like the closing of a padlock. They danced together the gorilla dance, and won a hand from all.
Then began the most fantastic part of the scene -- the wooing of the nymph by the gorilla. It was a kind of dance itself -- eccentric and prankish, with the nymph coquettish and seductive retreat, followed by the gorilla as he sang "I'll Woo Thee to My Sylvan Home."
The song was a lyric of merit. The words were non- sense, as befitted the play, but the music was worthy of something better. Delmars struck into it in a rich tenor that owned a quality that shamed the flippant words.
During one verse of the song the wood nymph per- formed the grotesque evolutions designed for the scene. At the middle of the second verse she stood still, with a strange look on her face, seeming to gaze dreamily into the depths of the scenic forest. The gorilla's last leap had brought him to her feet, and there he knelt, holding her hand, until he had finished the haunting-lyric that was set in the absurd comedy like a diamond in a piece of putty.
When Delmars ceased Miss Carroll started, and covered a sudden flow of tears with both hands.
"There!" cried the playwright, gesticulating with violence; "there you have it, sergeant. For two weeks she has spoiled that scene in just that manner at every performance. I have begged her to consider that it is not Ophelia or Juliet that she is playing. Do you wonder now at our impatience? Tears for the gorilla song! The play is lost!"
Out of her bewitchment, whatever it was, the wood nymph flared suddenly, and pointed a desperate finger at Delmars.
"It is you -- you who have done this," she cried wildly. "You never sang that song that way until lately. It is your doing."
"I give it up," said the sergeant.
And then the gray-haired matron of the police station came forward from behind the sergeant's chair.
"Must an old woman teach you all?" she said. She went up to Miss Carroll and took her hand.
"The man's wearing his heart out for you, my dear. Couldn't you tell it the first note you heard him sing? All of his monkey flip-flops wouldn't have kept it from me. Must you be deaf as well as blind? That's why you couldn't act your part, child. Do you love him or must he be a gorilla for the rest of his days?"
Miss Carroll whirled around and caught Delmars with a lightning glance of her eye. He came toward her, melancholy.
"Did you hear, Mr. Delmars?" she asked, with a catching breath.
"I did," said the comedian. "It is true. I didn't think there was any use. I tried to let you know with the song."
"Silly!" said the matron; "why didn't you speak?"
"No, no," cried the wood nymph, "his way was the best. I didn't know, but -- it was just what I wanted, Bobby."
She sprang like a green grasshopper; and the comedian opened his arms, and -- smiled.
"Get out of this," roared the desk sergeant to the waiting waiter from the restaurant. "There's nothing doing here for you."