The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
Two minutes' walk through to Broadway, and she was at her destination. There, on the other side of the way, stood the Gayety Theater, with the offices of Mr. Clarence Crossley overlooking the intersection of the two streets. Crossley was intrenched in the remotest of a series of rooms, each tenanted by under-staffers of diminishing importance as you drew way from the great man. It was next to impossible to get at him-- a cause of much sneering and dissatisfaction in theatrical circles. Crossley, they said, was exclusive, had the swollen head, had forgotten that only a few years before he had been a cheap little ticket-seller grateful for a bow from any actor who had ever had his name up. Crossley insisted that he was not a victim of folie de grandeur, that, on the contrary, he had become less vain as he had risen, where he could see how trivial a thing rising was and how accidental. Said he:
"Why do I shut myself in? Because I'm what I am --a good thing, easy fruit. You say that men a hundred times bigger than I'll ever be don't shut themselves up. You say that Mountain, the biggest financier in the country, sits right out where anybody can go up to him. Yes, but who'd dare go up to him? It's generally known that he's a cannibal, that he kills his own food and eats it warm and raw. So he can afford to sit in the open. If I did that, all my time and all my money would go to the cheap-skates with hard-luck tales. I don't hide because I'm haughty, but because I'm weak and soft."
In appearance Mr. Crossley did not suggest his name. He was a tallish, powerful-looking person with a smooth, handsome, audacious face, with fine, laughing, but somehow untrustworthy eyes--at least untrustworthy for women, though women had never profited by the warning. He dressed in excellent taste, almost conspicuously, and the gay and expensive details of his toilet suggested a man given over to liveliness. As a matter of fact, this liveliness was potential rather than actual. Mr. Crossley was always intending to resume the giddy ways of the years before he became a great man, but was always so far behind in the important things to be done and done at once that he was forced to put off. However, his neckties and his shirts and his flirtations, untrustworthy eyes kept him a reputation for being one of the worst cases in Broadway. In vain did his achievements show that he could not possibly have time or strength for anything but work. He looked like a rounder; he was in a business that gave endless dazzling opportunities for the lively life; a rounder he was, therefore.
He was about forty. At first glance, so vivid and energetic was he, he looked like thirty-five, but at second glance one saw the lines, the underlying melancholy signs of strain, the heavy price he had paid for phenomenal success won by a series of the sort of risks that make the hair fall as autumn leaves on a windy day and make such hairs as stick turn rapidly gray. Thus, there were many who thought Crossley was through vanity shy of the truth by five or six years when he said forty.
In ordinary circumstances Mildred would never have got at Crossley. This was the first business call of her life where she had come as an unknown and unsupported suitor. Her reception would have been such at the hands of Crossley's insolent and ill-mannered underlings that she would have fled in shame and confusion. It is even well within the possibilities that she would have given up all idea of a career, would have sent for Baird, and so on. And not one of those who, timid and inexperienced, have suffered rude rebuff at their first advance, would have condemned her. But it so chanced --whether by good fortune or by ill the event was to tell--that she did not have to face a single underling. The hall door was open. She entered. It happened that while she was coming up in the elevator a quarrel between a motorman and a driver had heated into a fight, into a small riot. All the underlings had rushed out on a balcony that commanded a superb view of the battle. The connecting doors were open; Mildred advanced from room to room, seeking someone who would take her card to Mr. Crossley. When she at last faced a closed door she knocked.
"Come!" cried a pleasant voice.
And in she went, to face Crossley himself--Crossley, the "weak and soft," caught behind his last entrenchment with no chance to escape. Had Mildred looked the usual sort who come looking for jobs in musical comedy, Mr. Crossley would not have risen--not be- cause he was snobbish, but because, being a sensitive, high-strung person, he instinctively adopted the manner that would put the person before him at ease. He glanced at Mildred, rose, and thrust back forthwith the slangy, offhand personality that was perhaps the most natural--or was it merely the most used?--of his many personalities. It was Crossley the man of the world, the man of the artistic world, who delighted Mildred with a courteous bow and offer of a chair, as he said:
"You wished to see me?"
"If you are Mr. Crossley," said Mildred.
"I should be tempted to say I was, if I wasn't," said he, and his manner made it a mere pleasantry to put her at ease.
"There was no one in the outside room, so I walked on and on until your door stopped me."
"You'll never know how lucky you were," said he. "They tell me those fellows out there have shocking manners."
"Have you time to see me now? I've come to apply for a position in musical comedy."
"You have not been on the stage, Miss--"
"Gower. Mildred Gower. I've decided to use my own name."
"I know you have not been on the stage."
"Except as an amateur--and not even that for several years. But I've been working at my voice."
Crossley was studying her, as she stood talking-- she had refused the chair. He was more than favorably impressed. But the deciding element was not Mildred's excellent figure or her charm of manner or her sweet and lovely face. It was superstition. Just at that time Crossley had been abruptly deserted by Estelle Howard; instead of going on with the rehearsals of "The Full Moon," in which she was to be starred, she had rushed away to Europe with a violinist with whom she had fallen in love at the first rehearsal. Crossley was looking about for someone to take her place. He had been entrenched in those offices for nearly five years; in all that time not a single soul of the desperate crowds that dogged him had broken through his guard. Crossley was as superstitious as was everyone else who has to do with the stage.
"What kind of a voice?" asked he.
"You have music there. What?"
" `Batti Batti' and a little song in English--`The Rose and the Bee.' "
Crossley forgot his manners, turned his back squarely upon her, thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets, and stared out through the window. He presently wheeled round. She would not have thought his eyes could be so keen. Said he: "You were studying for grand opera?"
"Why do you drop it and take up this?"
"No money," replied she. "I've got to make my living at once."
"Well, let's see. Come with me, please."
They went out by a door into the hall, went back to the rear of the building, in at an iron door, down a flight of steep iron skeleton steps dimly lighted. Mildred had often been behind the scenes in her amateur theatrical days; but even if she had not, she would have known where she was. Crossley called, "Moldini! Moldini!"
The name was caught up by other voices and repeated again and again, more and more remotely. A moment, and a small dark man with a superabundance of greasy dark hair appeared. "Miss Gower," said Crossley, "this is Signor Moldini. He will play your accompaniments." Then to the little Italian, "Piano on the stage?"
To Mildred with a smile, "Will you try?"
She bent her head. She had no voice--not for song, not for speech, not even for a monosyllable.
Crossley took Moldini aside where Mildred could not hear. "Mollie," said he, "this girl crept up on me, and I've got to give her a trial. As you see, she's a lady, and you know what they are."
"Punk," said Moldini.
Crossley nodded. "She seems a nice sort, so I want to let her down easy. I'll sit back in the house, in the dark. Run her through that `Batti Batti' thing she's got with her. If she's plainly on the fritz, I'll light a cigarette. If I don't light up, try the other song she has. If I still don't light up make her go through that `Ah, were you here, love,' from the piece. But if I light up, it means that I'm going to light out, and that you're to get rid of her--tell her we'll let her know if she'll leave her address. You understand?"
Far from being thrilled and inspired, her surroundings made her sick at heart--the chill, the dampness, the bare walls, the dim, dreary lights, the coarsely- painted flats-- At last she was on the threshold of her chosen profession. What a profession for such a person as she had always been! She stood beside Moldini, seated at the piano. She gazed at the darkness, somewhere in whose depths Crossley was hidden. After several false starts she sang the "Batti Batti" through, sang it atrociously--not like a poor professional, but like a pretentious amateur, a reversion to a manner of singing she had once had, but had long since got rid of. She paused at the end, appalled by the silence, by the awfulness of her own performance.
From the darkness a slight click. If she had known! --for, it was Crossley's match-safe.
The sound, slight yet so clear, startled her, roused her. She called out: "Mr. Crossley, won't you please be patient enough to let me try that again?"
A brief hesitation, then: "Certainly."
Once more she began. But this time there was no hesitation. From first to last she did it as Jennings had coached her, did it with all the beauty and energy of her really lovely voice. As she ended, Moldini said in a quiet but intense undertone: "Bravo! Bravo! Fresh as a bird on a bright spring morning." And from the darkness came: "Ah--that's better, Miss Gower. That was professional work. Now for the other."
Thus encouraged and with her voice well warmed, she could not but make a success of the song that was nearer to what would be expected of her in musical comedy. Crossley called out: "Now, the sight singing, Moldini. I don't expect you to do this well, Miss Gower. I simply wish to get an idea of how you'd do a piece we have in rehearsal."
"You'll have no trouble with this," said Moldini, as he opened the comedy song upon the rack with a contemptuous whirl. "It's the easy showy stuff that suits the tired business man and his laced-in wife. Go at it and yell."
Mildred glanced through it. There was a subtle something in the atmosphere now that put her at her ease. She read the words aloud, laughing at their silly sentimentality, she and Moldini and Crossley making jokes about it. Soon she said: "I'm ready."
She sang it well. She asked them to let her try it again. And the second time, with the words in her mind and the simple melody, she was able to put expression into it and to indicate, with restraint, the action. Crossley came down the aisle.
"What do you think, Mollie?" he said to Moldini.
"We might test her at a few rehearsals."
Crossley meekly accepted the salutary check on his enthusiasm. "Do you wish to try, Miss Gower?"
Mildred was silent. She knew now the sort of piece in which she was to appear. She had seen a few of them, those cheap and vulgar farces with their thin music, their more than dubious-looking people. What a come-down! What a degradation! It was as bad in its way as being the wife of General Siddall. And she was to do this, in preference to marrying Stanley Baird.
"You will be paid, of course, during rehearsal; that is, as long as we are taking your time. Fifty dollars a week is about as much as we can afford." Crossley was watching her shrewdly, was advancing these remarks in response to the hesitation he saw so plainly. "Of course it isn't grand opera," he went on. "In fact, it's pretty low--almost as low as the public taste. You see, we aren't subsidized by millionaires who want people to think they're artistic, so we have to hustle to separate the public from its money. But if you make a hit, you can earn enough to put you into grand opera in fine style."
"I never heard of anyone's graduating from here into grand opera," said Mildred.
"Because our stars make so much money and make it so easily. It'll be your own fault if you don't."
"Can't I come to just one rehearsal--to see whether I can--can do it?" pleaded Mildred.
Crossley, made the more eager and the more superstitious by this unprecedented reluctance, shook his head.
"No. You must agree to stay as long as we want you," said he. "We can't allow ourselves to be trifled with."
"Very well," said Mildred resignedly. "I will rehearse as long as you want me."
"And will stay for the run of the piece, if we want that?" said Crossley. "You to get a hundred a week if you are put in the cast. More, of course, if you make a hit."
"You mean I'm to sign a contract?" cried Mildred in dismay.
"Exactly," said Crossley. A truly amazing performance. Moldini was not astonished, however, for he had heard the songs, and he knew Crossley's difficulties through Estelle Howard's flight. Also, he knew Crossley-- never so "weak and soft" that he trifled with unlikely candidates for his productions. Crossley had got up because he knew what to do and when to do it.
Mildred acquiesced. Before she was free to go into the street again, she had signed a paper that bound her to rehearse for three weeks at fifty dollars a week and to stay on at a hundred dollars a week for forty weeks or the run of "The Full Moon," if Crossley so desired; if he did not, she was free at the end of the rehearsals. A shrewdly one-sided contract. But Crossley told himself he would correct it, if she should by some remote chance be good enough for the part and should make a hit in it. This was no mere salve to conscience, by the way. Crossley would not be foolish enough to give a successful star just cause for disliking and distrusting him and at the earliest opportunity leaving him to make money for some rival manager.
Mrs. Belloc had not gone out, had been waiting in a fever of anxiety. When Mildred came into her sitting- room with a gloomy face and dropped to a chair as if her last hope had abandoned her, it was all Agnes Belloc could do to restrain her tears. Said she:
"Don't be foolish, my dear. You couldn't expect anything to come of your first attempt."
"That isn't it," said Mildred. "I think I'll give it up--do something else. Grand opera's bad enough. There were a lot of things about it that I was fighting my distaste for."
"I know," said Agnes. "And you'd better fight them hard. They're unworthy of you."
"But--musical comedy! It's--frightful!"
"It's an honest way of making a living, and that's more than can be said of--of some things. I suppose you're afraid you'll have to wear tights--or some nonsense like that."
"No, no. It's doing it at all. Such rotten music --and what a loathsome mess!"
Mrs. Belloc's eyes flashed. "I'm losing all patience!" she cried. "I know you've been brought up like a fool and always surrounded by fools. I suppose you'd rather sell yourself to some man. Do you know what's the matter with you, at bottom? Why, you're lazy and you're a coward. Too lazy to work. And afraid of what a lot of cheap women'll say--women earning their board and clothes in about the lowest way such a thing can be done. Haven't you got any self- respect?"
Mildred rose. "Mrs. Belloc," she said angrily, "I can't permit even you to say such things to me."
"The shoe seems to fit," retorted Mrs. Belloc. "I never yet saw a lady, a real, silk-and-diamonds, sit-in- the-parlor lady, who had any self-respect. If I had my way they wouldn't get a mouthful to eat till they had earned it. That'd be a sure cure for the lady disease. I'm ashamed of you, Miss Stevens! And you're ashamed of yourself."
"Yes, I am," said Mildred, with a sudden change of mood.
"The best thing you can do is to rest till lunch-time. Then start out after lunch and hunt a job. I'll go with you."
"But I've got a job," said Mildred. "That's what's the matter."
Agnes Belloc's jaw dropped and her rather heavy eyebrows shot up toward the low sweeping line of her auburn hair. She made such a ludicrous face that Mildred laughed outright. Said she:
"It's quite time. Fifty a week, for three weeks of rehearsal. No doubt I can go on if I like. Nothing could be easier."
"Yes. He was very nice--heard me sing three pieces--and it was all settled. I'm to begin to-morrow."
The color rose in Agnes Belloc's face until she looked apoplectic. She abruptly retreated to her bedroom. After a few minutes she came back, her normal complexion restored. "I couldn't trust myself to speak," said she. "That was the worst case of ingratitude I ever met up with. You, getting a place at fifty dollars a week--and on your first trial--and you come in looking as if you'd lost your money and your reputation. What kind of a girl are you, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Mildred. "I wish I did."
"Well, I'm sorry you got it so easy. Now you'll have a false notion from the start. It's always better to have a hard time getting things. Then you appreciate them, and have learned how to hold on."
"No trouble about holding on to this," said Mildred carelessly.
"Please don't talk that way, child," pleaded Agnes, almost tearful. "It's frightful to me, who've had experience, to hear you invite a fall-down."
Mildred disdainfully fluttered the typewritten copy of the musical comedy. "This is child's play," said she. "The lines are beneath contempt. As for the songs, you never heard such slop."
"The stars in those pieces get four and five hundred, and more, a week," said Mrs. Belloc. "Believe me, those managers don't pay out any such sums for child's play. You look out. You're going at this wrong."
"I shan't care if I do fail," said Mildred.
"Do you mean that?" demanded Mrs. Belloc.
"No, I don't," said Mildred. "Oh, I don't know what I mean."
"I guess you're just talking," said Mrs. Belloc after a reflective silence. "I guess a girl who goes and gets a good job, first crack out of the box, must have a streak of shrewdness."
"I hope so," said Mildred doubtfully.
"I guess you'll work hard, all right. After you went out this morning, I took that paper down to Miss Blond. She's crazy about it. She wants to make a copy of it. I told her I'd ask you."
"Certainly," said Mildred. "She says she'll return it the same day."
"Tell her she can keep it as long as she likes."
Mrs. Belloc eyed her gravely, started to speak, checked herself. Instead, she said, "No, I shan't do that. I'll have it back in your room by this evening. You might change your mind, and want to use it."
"Very well," said Mildred, pointedly uninterested and ignoring Mrs. Belloc's delicate but distinct emphasis upon "might."
Mrs. Belloc kept a suspicious eye upon her--an eye that was not easily deceived. The more she thought about Mildred's state of depression and disdain the more tolerant she became. That mood was the natural and necessary result of the girl's bringing up and mode of life. The important thing--and the wonderful thing --was her being able to overcome it. After a week of rehearsal she said: "I'm making the best of it. But I don't like it, and never shall."
"I should hope not," replied Mrs. Belloc. "You're going to the top. I'd hate to see you contented at the bottom. Aren't you learning a good deal that'll be useful later on?"
"That's why I'm reconciled to it," said she. "The stage director, Mr. Ransdell, is teaching me everything --even how to sing. He knows his business."
Ransdell not only knew, but also took endless pains with her. He was a tall, thin, dark man, strikingly handsome in the distinguished way. So distinguished looking was he that to meet him was to wonder why he had not made a great name for himself. An extraordinary mind he certainly had, and an insight into the reasons for things that is given only to genius. He had failed as a composer, failed as a playwright, failed as a singer, failed as an actor. He had been forced to take up the profession of putting on dramatic and musical plays, a profession that required vast knowledge and high talents and paid for them in niggardly fashion both in money and in fame. Crossley owed to him more than to any other single element the series of successes that had made him rich; yet the ten thousand a year Crossley paid him was regarded as evidence of Crossley's lavish generosity and was so. It would have been difficult to say why a man so splendidly endowed by nature and so tireless in improving himself was thus unsuccessful. Probably he lacked judgment; indeed, that lack must have been the cause. He could judge for Crossley; but not for himself, not when he had the feeling of ultimate responsibility.
Mildred had anticipated the most repulsive associations-- men and women of low origin and of vulgar tastes and of vulgarly loose lives. She found herself surrounded by simple, pleasant people, undoubtedly erratic for the most part in all their habits, but without viciousness. And they were hard workers, all. Ransdell --for Crossley--tolerated no nonsense. His people could live as they pleased, away from the theater, but there they must be prompt and fit. The discipline was as severe as that of a monastery. She saw many signs that all sorts of things of the sort with which she wished to have no contact were going on about her; but as she held slightly--but not at all haughtily--aloof, she would have had to go out of her way to see enough to scandalize her. She soon suspected that she was being treated with extraordinary consideration. This was by Crossley's orders. But the carrying out of their spirit as well as their letter was due to Ransdell. Before the end of that first week she knew that there was the personal element behind his admiration for her voice and her talent for acting, behind his concentrating most of his attention upon her part. He looked his love boldly whenever they were alone; he was always trying to touch her--never in a way that she could have resented, or felt like resenting. He was not unattractive to her, and she was eager to learn all he had to teach, and saw no harm in helping herself by letting him love.
Toward the middle of the second week, when they were alone in her dressing-room, he--with the ingenious lack of abruptness of the experienced man at the game --took her hand, and before she was ready, kissed her. He did not accompany these advances with an outburst of passionate words or with any fiery lighting up of the eyes, but calmly, smilingly, as if it were what she was expecting him to do, what he had a right to do.
She did not know quite how to meet this novel attack. She drew her hand away, went on talking about the part--the changes he had suggested in her entrance, as she sang her best solo. He discussed this with her until they rose to leave the theater. He looked smilingly down on her, and said with the flattering air of the satisfied connoisseur:
"Yes, you are charming, Mildred. I can make a great artist and a great success out of you. We need each other."
"I certainly need you," said she gratefully. "How much you've done for me."
"Only the beginning," replied he. "Ah, I have such plans for you--such plans. Crossley doesn't realize how far you can be made to go--with the right training. Without it--" He shook his head laughingly. "But you shall have it, my dear." And he laid his hands lightly and caressingly upon her shoulders.
The gesture was apparently a friendly familiarity. To resent it, even to draw away, would put her in the attitude of the woman absurdly exercised about the desirability and sacredness of her own charms.
Still smiling, in that friendly, assured way, he went on: "You've been very cold and reserved with me, my dear. Very unappreciative."
Mildred, red and trembling, hung her head in confusion.
"I've been at the business ten years," he went on, "and you're the first woman I've been more than casually interested in. The pretty ones were bores. The homely ones--I can't interest myself in a homely woman, no matter how much talent she has. A woman must first of all satisfy the eye. And you--" He seated himself and drew her toward him. She, cold all over and confused in mind and almost stupefied, resisted with all her strength; but her strength seemed to be oozing away. She said:
"You must not do this. You must not do this. I'm horribly disappointed in you."
He drew her to his lap and held her there without any apparent tax upon his strength. He kissed her, laughingly pushing away the arms with which she tried to shield her face. Suddenly she found strength to wrench herself free and stood at a distance from him. She was panting a little, was pale, was looking at him with cold anger.
"You will please leave this room," said she.
He lit a cigarette, crossed his legs comfortably, and looked at her with laughing eyes. "Don't do that," he said genially. "Surely my lessons in acting haven't been in vain. That's too obviously a pose."
She went to the mirror, arranged her hat, and moved toward the door. He rose and barred the way.
"You are as sensible as you are sweet and lovely," said he. "Why should you insist on our being bad friends?"
"If you don't stand aside, I'll call out to the watchman."
"I'd never have thought you were dishonest. In fact, I don't believe it yet. You don't look like one of those ladies who wish to take everything and give nothing." His tone and manner were most attractive. Besides, she could not forget all he had done for her--and all he could do for her. Said she:
"Mr. Ransdell, if I've done anything to cause you to misunderstand, it was unconscious. And I'm sorry. But I--"
"Be honest," interrupted he. "Haven't I made it plain that I was fascinated by you?"
She could not deny it.
"Haven't I been showing you that I was willing to do everything I could for you?"
"I thought you were concerned only about the success of the piece."
"The piece be jiggered," said he. "You don't imagine you are necessary to its success, do you? You, a raw, untrained girl. Don't your good sense tell you I could find a dozen who would do, let us say, almost as well?"
"I understand that," murmured she.
"Perhaps you do, but I doubt it," rejoined he. "Vanity's a fast growing weed. However, I rather expected that you would remain sane and reasonably humble until you'd had a real success. But it seems not. Now tell me, why should I give my time and my talent to training you--to putting you in the way of quick and big success?"
She was silent.
"What did you count on giving me in return? Your thanks?"
She colored, hung her head.
"Wasn't I doing for you something worth while? And what had you to give in return?" He laughed with gentle mockery. "Really, you should have been grateful that I was willing to do so much for so little, for what I wanted ought--if you are a sensible woman --to seem to you a trifle in comparison with what I was doing for you. It was my part, not yours, to think the complimentary things about you. How shallow and vain you women are! Can't you see that the value of your charms is not in them, but in the imagination of some man?"
"I can't answer you," said she. "You've put it all wrong. You oughtn't to ask payment for a favor beyond price."
"No, I oughtn't to have to ask," corrected he, in the same pleasantly ironic way. "You ought to have been more than glad to give freely. But, curiously, while we've been talking, I've changed my mind about those precious jewels of yours. We'll say they're pearls, and that my taste has suddenly changed to diamonds." He bowed mockingly. "So, dear lady, keep your pearls."
And he stood aside, opening the door for her. She hesitated, dazed that she was leaving, with the feeling of the conquered, a field on which, by all the precedents, she ought to have been victor. She passed a troubled night, debated whether to relate her queer experience to Mrs. Belloc, decided for silence. It drafted into service all her reserve of courage to walk into the theater the next day and to appear on the stage among the assembled company with her usual air. Ransdell greeted her with his customary friendly courtesy and gave her his attention, as always. By the time they had got through the first act, in which her part was one of four of about equal importance, she had recovered herself and was in the way to forget the strange stage director's strange attack and even stranger retreat. But the situation changed with the second act, in which she was on the stage all the time and had the whole burden. The act as originally written had been less generous to her; but Ransdell had taken one thing after another away from the others and had given it to her. She made her first entrance precisely as he had trained her to make it and began. A few seconds, and he stopped her.
"Please try again, Miss Gower," said he. "I'm afraid that won't do."
She tried again; again he stopped her. She tried a third time. His manner was all courtesy and consideration, not the shade of a change. But she began to feel a latent hostility. Instinctively she knew that he would no longer help her, that he would leave her to her own resources, and judge her by how she acquitted herself. She made a blunder of her third trial.
"Really, Miss Gower, that will never do," said he mildly. "Let me show you how you did it."
He gave an imitation of her--a slight caricature. A titter ran through the chorus. He sternly rebuked them and requested her to try again. Her fourth attempt was her worst. He shook his head in gentle remonstrance. "Not quite right yet," said he regretfully. "But we'll go on."
Not far, however. He stopped her again. Again the courteous, kindly criticism. And so on, through the entire act. By the end of it, Mildred's nerves were unstrung. She saw the whole game, and realized how helpless she was. Before the end of that rehearsal, Mildred had slipped back from promising professional into clumsy amateur, tolerable only because of the beautiful freshness of her voice--and it was a question whether voice alone would save her. Yet no one but Mildred herself suspected that Ransdell had done it, had revenged himself, had served notice on her that since she felt strong enough to stand alone she was to have every opportunity to do so. He had said nothing disagree- able; on the contrary, he had been most courteous, most forbearing.
In the third act she was worse than in the second. At the end of the rehearsal the others, theretofore flattering and encouraging, turned away to talk among themselves and avoided her. Ransdell, about to leave, said:
"Don't look so down-hearted, Miss Gower. You'll be all right to-morrow. An off day's nothing."
He said it loudly enough for the others to hear. Mildred's face grew red with white streaks across it, like the prints of a lash. The subtlest feature of his malevolence had been that, whereas on other days he had taken her aside to criticize her, on this day he had spoken out--gently, deprecatingly, but frankly--before the whole company. Never had Mildred Gower been so sad and so blue as she was that day and that night. She came to the rehearsal the following day with a sore throat. She sang, but her voice cracked on the high notes. It was a painful exhibition. Her fellow principals, who had been rather glad of her set-back the day before, were full of pity and sympathy. They did not express it; they were too kind for that. But their looks, their drawing away from her--Mildred could have borne sneers and jeers better. And Ransdell was so forbearing, so gentle.
Her voice got better, got worse. Her acting remained mediocre to bad. At the fifth rehearsal after the break with the stage-director, Mildred saw Crossley seated far back in the dusk of the empty theater. It was his first appearance at rehearsals since the middle of the first week. As soon as he had satisfied himself that all was going well, he had given his attention to other matters where things were not going well. Mildred knew why he was there--and she acted and sang atrociously. Ransdell aggravated her nervousness by ostentatiously trying to help her, by making seemingly adroit attempts to cover her mistakes--attempts apparently thwarted and exposed only because she was hopelessly bad.
In the pause between the second and third acts Ransdell went down and sat with Crossley, and they engaged in earnest conversation. The while, the members of the company wandered restlessly about the stage, making feeble attempts to lift the gloom with affected cheerfulness. Ransdell returned to the stage, went up to Mildred, who was sitting idly turning the leaves of a part-book.
"Miss Gower," said he, and never had his voice been so friendly as in these regretful accents, "don't try to go on to-day. You're evidently not yourself. Go home and rest for a few days. We'll get along with your understudy, Miss Esmond. When Mr. Crossley wants to put you in again, he'll send for you. You mustn't be discouraged. I know how beginners take these things to heart. Don't fret about it. You can't fail to succeed."
Mildred rose and, how she never knew, crossed the stage. She stumbled into the flats, fumbled her way to the passageway, to her dressing-room. She felt that she must escape from that theater quickly, or she would give way to some sort of wild attack of nerves. She fairly ran through the streets to Mrs. Belloc's, shut herself in her room. But instead of the relief of a storm of tears, there came a black, hideous depression. Hour after hour she sat, almost without motion. The afternoon waned; the early darkness came. Still she did not move--could not move. At eight o'clock Mrs. Belloc knocked. Mildred did not answer. Her door opened --she had forgotten to lock it. In came Mrs. Belloc.
"Isn't that you, sitting by the window?" she said.
"Yes," replied Mildred.
"I recognized the outline of your hat. Besides, who else could it be but you? I've saved some dinner for you. I thought you were still out."
Mildred did not answer.
"What's the matter?" said Agnes? "Ill? bad news?"
"I've lost my position," said Mildred.
A pause. Then Mrs. Belloc felt her way across the room until she was touching the girl. "Tell me about it, dear," said she.
In a monotonous, lifeless way Mildred told the story. It was some time after she finished when Agnes said:
"That's bad--bad, but it might be worse. You must go to see the manager, Crossley."
"Why?" said Mildred.
"Tell him what you told me."
Mildred's silence was dissent.
"It can't do any harm," urged Agnes.
"It can't do any good," replied Mildred.
"That isn't the way to look at it."
A long pause. Then Mildred said: "If I got a place somewhere else, I'd meet the same thing in another form."
"You've got to risk that."
"Besides, I'd never have had a chance of succeeding if Mr. Ransdell hadn't taught me and stood behind me."
It was many minutes before Agnes Belloc said in a hesitating, restrained voice: "They say that success --any kind of success--has its price, and that one has to be ready to pay that price or fail."
Again the profound silence. Into it gradually penetrated the soft, insistent sound of the distant roar of New York--a cruel, clamorous, devouring sound like a demand for that price of success. Said Agnes timidly:
"Why not go to see Mr. Ransdell."
"He wouldn't make it up," said Mildred. "And I --I couldn't. I tried to marry Stanley Baird for money--and I couldn't. It would be the same way now--only more so."
"But you've got to do something."
"Yes, and I will." Mildred had risen abruptly, was standing at the window. Agnes Belloc could feel her soul rearing defiantly at the city into which she was gazing. "I will!" she replied.
"It sounds as if you'd been pushed to where you'd turn and make a fight," said Agnes.
"I hope so," said Mildred. "It's high time."
She thought out several more or less ingenious indirect routes into Mr. Crossley's stronghold, for use in case frontal attack failed. But she did not need them. Still, the hours she spent in planning them were by no means wasted. No time is wasted that is spent in desperate, concentrated thinking about any of the practical problems of life. And Mildred Gower, as much as any other woman of her training--or lack of training-- was deficient in ability to use her mind purposefully. Most of us let our minds act like a sheep in a pasture--go wandering hither and yon, nibbling at whatever happens to offer. Only the superior few deliberately select a pasture, select a line of procedure in that pasture and keep to it, concentrating upon what is useful to us, and that alone. So it was excellent experience for Mildred to sit down and think connectedly and with wholly absorbed mind upon the phase of her career most important at the moment. When she had worked out all the plans that had promise in them she went tranquilly to sleep, a stronger and a more determined person, for she had said with the energy that counts: "I shall see him, somehow. If none of these schemes works, I'll work out others. He's got to see me."
But it was no occult "bearing down" that led him to order her admitted the instant her card came. He liked her; he wished to see her again; he felt that it was the decent thing, and somehow not difficult gently but clearly to convey to her the truth. On her side she, who had looked forward to the interview with some nervousness, was at her ease the moment she faced him alone in that inner office. He had extraordinary personal charm--more than Ransdell, though Ransdell had the charm invariably found in a handsome human being with the many-sided intellect that gives lightness of mind. Crossley was not intellectual, not in the least. One had only to glance at him to see that he was one of those men who reserve all their intelligence for the practical sides of the practical thing that forms the basis of their material career. He knew something of many things, had a wonderful assortment of talents --could sing, could play piano or violin, could compose, could act, could do mystifying card tricks, could order women's clothes as discriminatingly as he could order his own--all these things a little, but nothing much except making a success of musical comedy and comic opera. He had an ambition, carefully restrained in a closet of his mind, where it could not issue forth and interfere with his business. This ambition was to be a giver of grand opera on a superb scale. He regarded himself as a mere money-maker--was not ashamed of this, but neither was he proud of it. His ambition then represented a dream of a rise to something more than business man, to friend and encourager and wet nurse to art.
Mildred Gower had happened to set his imagination to working. The discovery that she was one of those whose personalities rouse high expectations only to mock them had been a severe blow to his confidence in his own judgment. Though he pretended to believe, and had the habit of saying that he was "weak and soft," was always being misled by his good nature, he really believed himself an unerring judge of human beings, and, as his success evidenced, he was not far wrong. Thus, though convinced that Mildred was a "false alarm," his secret vanity would not let him release his original idea. He had the tenacity that is an important element in all successes; and tenacity become a fixed habit has even been known to ruin in the end the very careers it has made.
Said Mildred, in a manner which was astonishingly unemotional and businesslike: "I've not come to tattle and to whine, Mr. Crossley. I've hesitated about coming at all, partly because I've an instinct it's useless, partly because what I have to say isn't easy."
Crossley's expression hardened. The old story!-- excuses, excuses, self-excuse--somebody else to blame.
"If it hadn't been for Mr. Ransdell--the trouble he took with me, the coaching he gave me--I'd have been a ridiculous failure at the very first rehearsal. But --it is to Mr. Ransdell that my failure is due."
"My dear Miss Gower," said Crossley, polite but cold, "I regret hearing you say that. The fact is very different. Not until you had done so--so unacceptably at several rehearsals that news of it reached me by another way--not until I myself went to Mr. Ransdell about you did he admit that there could be a possibility of a doubt of your succeeding. I had to go to rehearsal myself and directly order him to restore Miss Esmond and lay you off."
Mildred was not unprepared. She received this tranquilly. "Mr. Ransdell is a very clever man," said she with perfect good humor. "I've no hope of convincing you, but I must tell my side."
And clearly and simply, with no concealments through fear of disturbing his high ideal of her ladylike deli- cacy, she told him the story. He listened, seated well back in his tilted desk-chair, his gaze upon the ceiling. When she finished he held his pose a moment, then got up and paced the length of the office several times, his hands in his pockets. He paused, looked keenly at her, a good-humored smile in those eyes of his so fascinating to women because of their frank wavering of an inconstancy it would indeed be a triumph to seize and hold. Said he:
"And your bad throat? Did Ransdell give you a germ?"
She colored. He had gone straight at the weak point.
"If you'd been able to sing," he went on, "nobody could have done you up."
She could not gather herself together for speech.
"Didn't you know your voice wasn't reliable when you came to me?"
"Yes," she admitted.
"And wasn't that the real reason you had given up grand opera?" pursued he mercilessly.
"The reason was what I told you--lack of money," replied she. "I did not go into the reason why I lacked money. Why should I when, even on my worst days, I could get through all my part in a musical comedy-- except songs that could be cut down or cut out? If I could have made good at acting, would you have given me up on account of my voice?"
"Not if you had been good enough," he admitted.
"Then I did not get my engagement on false pretenses?"
"No. You are right. Still, your fall-down as a singer is the important fact. Don't lose sight of it."
"I shan't," said she tersely.
His eyes were frankly laughing. "As to Ransdell --what a clever trick! He's a remarkable man. If he weren't so shrewd in those little ways, he might have been a great man. Same old story--just a little too smart, and so always doing the little thing and missing the big thing. Yes, he went gunning for you--and got you." He dropped into his chair. He thought a moment, laughed aloud, went on: "No doubt he has worked that same trick many a time. I've suspected it once or twice, but this time he fooled me. He got you, Miss Gower, and I can do nothing. You must see that I can't look after details. And I can't give up as invaluable a man as Ransdell. If I put you back, he'd put you out--would make the piece fail rather than let you succeed."
Mildred was gazing somberly at the floor.
"It's hard lines--devilish hard lines," he went on sympathetically. "But what can I do?"
"What can I do?" said Mildred.
"Do as all people do who succeed--meet the conditions."
"I'm not prepared to go as far as that, at least not yet," said she with bitter sarcasm. "Perhaps when I'm actually starving and in rags--"
"A very distressing future," interrupted Crossley. "But--I didn't make the world. Don't berate me. Be sensible--and be honest, Miss Gower, and tell me-- how could I possibly protect you and continue to give successful shows? If you can suggest any feasible way, I'll take it."
"No, there isn't any way," replied she, rising to go.
He rose to escort her to the hall door. "Personally, the Ransdell sort of thing is--distasteful to me. Perhaps if I were not so busy I might be forced by my own giddy misconduct to take less high ground. I've observed that the best that can be said for human nature at its best is that it is as well behaved as its real temptations permit. He was making you, you know. You've admitted it."
"There's no doubt about that," said Mildred.
"Mind you, I'm not excusing him. I'm simply explaining him. If your voice had been all right--if you could have stood to any degree the test he put you to, the test of standing alone--you'd have defeated him. He wouldn't have dared go on. He's too shrewd to think a real talent can be beaten."
The strong lines, the latent character, in Mildred's face were so strongly in evidence that looking at her then no one would have thought of her beauty or even of her sex, but only of the force that resists all and overcomes all. "Yes--the voice," said she. "The voice."
"If it's ever reliable, come to see me. Until then--" He put out his hand. When she gave him hers, he held it in a way that gave her no impulse to draw back. "You know the conditions of success now. You must prepare to meet them. If you put yourself at the mercy of the Ransdells--or any other of the petty intriguers that beset every avenue of success--you must take the consequences, you must conciliate them as best you can. If you don't wish to be at their mercy, you must do your part."
She nodded. He released her hand, opened the hall door. He said:
"Forgive my little lecture. But I like you, and I can't help having hope of you." He smiled charmingly, his keen, inconstant eyes dimming. "Perhaps I hope because you're young and extremely lovely and I am pitifully susceptible. You see, you'd better go. Every man's a Ransdell at heart where pretty women are concerned."
She did not leave the building. She went to the elevator and asked the boy where she could find Signor Moldini. His office was the big room on the third floor where voice candidates were usually tried out, three days in the week. At the moment he was engaged. Mildred, seated in the tiny anteroom, heard through the glass door a girl singing, or trying to sing. It was a distressing performance, and Mildred wondered that Moldini could be so tolerant as to hear her through. He came to the door with her, thanked her profusely, told her he would let her know whenever there was an opening "suited to your talents." As he observed Mildred, he was still sighing and shaking his head over the departed candidate.
"Ugly and ignorant!" he groaned. "Poor creature! Poor, poor creature. She makes three dollars a week--in a factory owned by a great philanthropist. Three dollars a week. And she has no way to make a cent more. Miss Gower, they talk about the sad, naughty girls who sell themselves in the street to piece out their wages. But think, dear young lady, how infinitely better of they are than the ugly ones who can't piece out their wages."
There he looked directly at her for the first time. Before she could grasp the tragic sadness of his idea, he, with the mobility of candid and highly sensitized natures, shifted from melancholy to gay, for in looking at her he had caught only the charm of dress, of face, of arrangement of hair. "What a pleasure!" he exclaimed, bursting into smiles and seizing and kissing her gloved hands. "Voice like a bird, face like an angel --only not too good, no, not too good. But it is so rare--to look as one sings, to sing as one looks."
For once, compliment, sincere compliment from one whose opinion was worth while, gave Mildred pain. She burst out with her news: "Signor Moldini, I've lost my place in the company. My voice has gone back on me."
Usually Moldini abounded in the consideration of fine natures that have suffered deeply from lack of consideration. But he was so astounded that he could only stare stupidly at her, smoothing his long greasy hair with his thin brown hand.
"It's all my fault; I don't take care of myself," she went on. "I don't take care of my health. At least, I hope that's it."
"Hope!" he said, suddenly angry.
"Hope so, because if it isn't that, then I've no chance for a career," explained she.
He looked at her feet, pointed an uncannily long forefinger at them. "The crossings and sidewalks are slush--and you, a singer, without overshoes! Lunacy! Lunacy!"
"I've never worn overshoes?" said Mildred apologetically.
"Don't tell me! I wish not to hear. It makes me --like madness here." He struck his low sloping brow with his palm. "What vanity! That the feet may look well to the passing stranger, no overshoes! Rheumatism, sore throat, colds, pneumonia. Is it not disgusting. If you were a man I should swear in all the languages I know--which are five, including Hungarian, and when one swears in Hungarian it is `going some,' as you say in America. Yes, it is going quite some."
"I shall wear overshoes," said Mildred.
"And indigestion--you have that?"
"A little, I guess."
"Much--much, I tell you!" cried Moldini, shaking the long finger at her. "You Americans! You eat too fast and you eat too much. That is why you are always sick, and consulting the doctors who give the medicines that make worse, not better. Yes, you Americans are like children. You know nothing. Sing? Americans cannot sing until they learn that a stomach isn't a waste-basket, to toss everything into. You have been to that throat specialist, Hicks?"
"Ah, yes," said Mildred brightening. "He said there was nothing organically wrong."
"He is an ass, and a criminal. He ruins throats. He likes to cut, and he likes to spray. He sprays those poisons that relieve colds and paralyze the throat and cords. Americans sing? It is to laugh! They have too many doctors; they take too many pills. Do you know what your national emblem should be? A dollar- sign--yes. But that for all nations. No, a pill--a pill, I tell you. You take pills?"
"Now and then," said Mildred, laughing. "I admit I have several kinds always on hand."
"You see!" cried he triumphantly. "No, it is not mere art that America needs, but more sense about eating--and to keep away from the doctors. People full of pills, they cannot make poems and pictures, and write operas and sing them. Throw away those pills, dear young lady, I implore you."
"Signor Moldini, I've come to ask you to help me."
Instantly the Italian cleared his face of its half- humorous, half-querulous expression. In its place came a grave and courteous eagerness to serve her that was a pleasure, even if it was not altogether sincere. And Mildred could not believe it sincere. Why should he care what became of her, or be willing to put himself out for her?
"You told me one day that you had at one time taught singing," continued she.
"Until I was starved out?" replied he. "I told people the truth. If they could not sing I said so. If they sang badly I told them why, and it was always the upset stomach, the foolish food, and people will not take care about food. They will eat what they please, and they say eating is good for them, and that anyone who opposes them is a crank. So most of my pupils left, except those I taught for nothing--and they did not heed me, and came to nothing."
"You showed me in ten minutes one day how to cure my worst fault. I've sung better, more naturally ever since."
"You could sing like the birds. You do--almost. You could be taught to sing as freely and sweetly and naturally as a flower gives perfume. That is your divine gift, young lady song as pure and fresh as a bird's song raining down through the leaves from the tree-top."
"I have no money. I've got to get it, and I shall get it," continued Mildred. "I want you to teach me --at any hour that you are free. And I want to know how much you will charge, so that I shall know how much to get."
"Two dollars a lesson. Or, if you take six lessons a week, ten dollars. Those were my terms. I could not take less."
"It is too little," said Mildred. "The poorest kinds of teachers get five dollars an hour--and teach nothing."
"Two dollars, ten dollars a week," replied he. "It is the most I ever could get. I will not take more from you."
"It is too little," said she. "But I'll not insist-- for obvious reasons. Now, if you'll give me your home address, I'll go. When I get the money, I'll write to you."
"But wait!" cried he, as she rose to depart. "Why so hurried? Let us see. Take of the wrap. Step be- hind the screen and loosen your corset. Perhaps even you could take it off?"
"Not without undressing," said Mildred. "But I can do that if it's necessary." She laughed queerly. "From this time on I'll do anything that's necessary."
"No,--never mind. The dress of woman--of your kind of women. It is not serious." He laughed grimly. "As for the other kind, their dress is the only serious thing about them. It is a mistake to think that women who dress badly are serious. My experience has been that they are the most foolish of all. Fashionable dress--it is part of a woman's tools. It shows that she is good at her business. The women who try to dress like men, they are good neither at men's business nor at women's."
This, while Mildred was behind the screen, loosening her corset--though, in fact, she wore it so loose at all times that she inconvenienced herself simply to show her willingness to do as she was told. When she came out, Moldini put her through a rigid physical examination --made her breathe while he held one hand on her stomach, the other on her back, listened at her heart, opened wide her throat and peered down, thrust his long strong fingers deep into the muscles of her arms, her throat, her chest, until she had difficulty in not crying out with pain.
"The foundation is there," was his verdict. "You have a good body, good muscles, but flabby--a lady's muscles, not an opera singer's. And you are stiff-- not so stiff as when you first came here, but stiff for a professional. Ah, we must go at this scientifically, thoroughly."
"You will teach me to breathe--and how to produce my voice naturally?"
"I will teach you nothing," replied he. "I will tell you what to do, and you will teach yourself. You must get strong--strong in the supple way--and then you will sing as God intended. The way to sing, dear young lady, is to sing. Not to breathe artificially, and make faces, and fuss with your throat, but simply to drop your mouth and throat open and let it out!"
Mildred produced from her hand-bag the Keith paper. "What do you think of that?" she asked.
Presently he looked up from his reading. "This part I have seen before," said he. "It is Lucia Rivi's. Her cousin, Lotta Drusini, showed it to me--she was a great singer also."
"You approve of it?"
"If you will follow that for two years, faithfully, you will be securely great, and then you will follow it all your singing life--and it will be long. But remember, dear young lady, I said if you follow it, and I said faithfully. I do not believe you can."
"Why not?" said Mildred.
"Because that means self-denial, colossal self-denial. You love things to eat--yes?"
"We all do," said Moldini. "And we hate routine, and we like foolish, aimless little pleasures of all kinds."
"And it will be two years before I can try grand opera--can make my living?" said Mildred slowly.
"I did not say that. I said, before you would be great. No, you can sing, I think, in--wait."
Moldini flung rapidly through an enormous mass of music on a large table. "Ah, here!" he cried, and he showed her a manuscript of scales. "Those two papers. It does not look much? Well, I have made it up, myself. And when you can sing those two papers perfectly, you will be a greater singer than any that ever lived." He laughed delightedly. "Yes, it is all there--in two pages. But do not weep, dear lady, because you will never sing them perfectly. You will do very well if-- Always that if, remember! Now, let us see. Take this, sit in the chair, and begin. Don't bother about me. I expect nothing. Just do the best you can."
Desperation, when it falls short of despair, is the best word for achievement. Mildred's voice, especially at the outset, was far from perfect condition. Her high notes, which had never been developed properly, were almost bad. But she acquitted herself admirably from the standpoint of showing what her possibilities were. And Moldini, unkempt, almost unclean, but as natural and simple and human a soul as ever paid the penalties of poverty and obscurity and friendlessness for being natural and simple and human, exactly suited her peculiar temperament. She knew that he liked her, that he believed in her; she knew that he was as sympathetic toward her as her own self, that there was no meanness anywhere in him. So she sang like a bird-- a bird that was not too well in soul or in body, but still a bird out in the sunshine, with the airs of spring cheer- ing his breast and its foliage gladdening his eyes. He kept her at it for nearly an hour. She saw that he was pleased, that he had thought out some plan and was bursting to tell her, but had forbidden himself to speak of it. He said:
"You say you have no money?"
"No, but I shall get it."
"You may have to pay high for it--yes?"
She colored, but did not flinch. "At worst, it will be --unpleasant, but that's all."
"Wait one--two days--until you hear from me. I may--I do not say will, but may--get it. Yes, I who have nothing." He laughed gayly. "And we-- you and I--we will divide the spoils." Gravely. "Do not misunderstand. That was my little joke. If I get the money for you it will be quite honorable and businesslike. So--wait, dear young lady."
As she was going, she could not resist saying:
"You are sure I can sing?--if, of course--always the if."
"It is not to be doubted."
"How well, do you think?"
"You mean how many dollars a night well? You mean as well as this great singer or that? I do not know. And you are not to compare yourself with anyone but yourself. You will sing as well as Mildred Gower at her best."
For some reason her blood went tingling through her veins. If she had dared she would have kissed him.