Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
In but one important respect was Brent's original plan modified. Instead of getting her stage experience in France, Susan joined a London company making one of those dreary, weary, cheap and trashy tours of the smaller cities of the provinces with half a dozen plays by Jones, Pinero, and Shaw.
Clelie stayed in London, toiling at the language, determined to be ready to take the small part of French maid in Brent's play in the fall. Brent and Palmer accompanied Susan; and every day for several hours Brent and the stage manager--his real name was Thomas Boil and his professional name was Herbert Streathern--coached the patient but most unhappy Susan line by line, word by word, gesture by gesture, in the little parts she was playing. Palmer traveled with them, making a pretense of interest that ill concealed his boredom and irritation. This for three weeks; then he began to make trips to London to amuse himself with the sports, amateur and professional, with whom he easily made friends--some of them men in a position to be useful to him socially later on. He had not spoken of those social ambitions of his since Susan refused to go that way with him--but she knew he had them in mind as strongly as ever. He was the sort of man who must have an objective, and what other objective could there be for him who cared for and believed in the conventional ambitions and triumphs only--the successes that made the respectable world gape and grovel and envy?
"You'll not stick at this long," he said to Susan.
"I'm frightfully depressed," she admitted. "It's tiresome--and hard--and so hideously uncomfortable! And I've lost all sense of art or profession. Acting seems to be nothing but a trade, and a poor, cheap one at that."
He was not surprised, but was much encouraged by this candid account of her state of mind. Said he:
"It's my private opinion that only your obstinacy keeps you from giving it up straight off. Surely you must see it's nonsense. Drop it and come along--and be comfortable and happy. Why be obstinate? There's nothing in it."
"Perhaps it is obstinacy," said she. "I like to think it's something else."
"Drop it. You want to. You know you do."
"I want to, but I can't," replied she.
He recognized the tone, the expression of the eyes, the sudden showing of strength through the soft, young contour. And he desisted.
Never again could there be comfort, much less happiness, until she had tried out her reawakened ambition. She had given up all that had been occupying her since she left America with Freddie; she had abandoned herself to a life of toil. Certainly nothing could have been more tedious, more tormenting to sensitive nerves, than the schooling through which Brent was putting her. Its childishness revolted her and angered her. Experience had long since lowered very considerably the point at which her naturally sweet disposition ceased to be sweet--a process through which every good-tempered person must pass unless he or she is to be crushed and cast aside as a failure. There were days, many of them, when it took all her good sense, all her fundamental faith in Brent, to restrain her from an outbreak. Streathern regarded Brent as a crank, and had to call into service all his humility as a poor Englishman toward a rich man to keep from showing his contempt. And Brent seemed to be--indeed was--testing her forbearance to the uttermost. He offered not the slightest explanation of his method. He simply ordered her blindly to pursue the course he marked out. She was sorely tempted to ask, to demand, explanations. But there stood out a quality in Brent that made her resolve ooze away, as soon as she faced him. Of one thing she was confident. Any lingering suspicions Freddie might have had of Brent's interest in her as a woman, or even of her being interested in him as a man, must have been killed beyond resurrection. Freddie showed that he would have hated Brent, would have burst out against him, for the unhuman, inhuman way he was treating her, had it not been that Brent was so admirably serving his design to have her finally and forever disgusted and done with the stage.
Finally there came a performance in which the audience--the gallery part of it--"booed" her--not the play, not the other players, but her and no other. Brent came along, apparently by accident, as she made her exit. He halted before her and scanned her countenance with those all-seeing eyes of his. Said he:
"You heard them?"
"Of course," replied she.
"That was for you," said he and he said it with an absence of sympathy that made it brutal.
"For only me," said she--frivolously.
"You seem not to mind."
"Certainly I mind. I'm not made of wood or stone."
"Don't you think you'd better give it up?"
She looked at him with a steely light from the violet eyes, a light that had never been there before.
"Give up?" said she. "Not even if you give me up. This thing has got to be put through."
He simply nodded. "All right," he said. "It will be."
"That booing--it almost struck me dead. When it didn't, I for the first time felt sure I was going to win."
He nodded again, gave her one of his quick expressive, fleeting glances that somehow made her forget and forgive everything and feel fresh and eager to start in again. He said:
"When the booing began and you didn't break down and run off the stage, I knew that what I hoped and believed about you was true."
Streathern joined them. His large, soft eyes were full of sympathetic tears. He was so moved that he braved Brent. He said to Susan:
"It wasn't your fault, Miss Lenox. You were doing exactly as Mr. Brent ordered, when the booing broke out."
"Exactly," said Brent.
Streathern regarded him with a certain nervousness and veiled pity. Streathern had been brought into contact with many great men. He had found them, each and every one, with this same streak of wild folly, this habit of doing things that were to him obviously useless and ridiculous. It was a profound mystery to him why such men succeeded while he himself who never did such things remained in obscurity. The only explanation was the abysmal stupidity, ignorance, and folly of the masses of mankind. What a harbor of refuge that reflection has ever been for mediocrity's shattered and sinking vanity! Yet the one indisputable fact about the great geniuses of long ago is that in their own country and age "the common people heard them gladly." Streathern could not now close his mouth upon one last appeal on behalf of the clever and lovely and so amiable victim of Brent's mania.
"I say, Mr. Brent," pleaded he, "don't you think--Really now, if you'll permit a chap not without experience to say so--Don't you think that by drilling her so much and so--so beastly minutely--you're making her wooden--machine-like?"
"I hope so," said Brent, in a tone that sent Streathern scurrying away to a place where he could express himself unseen and unheard.
In her fifth week she began to improve. She felt at home on the stage; she felt at home in her part, whatever it happened to be. She was giving what could really be called a performance. Streathern, when he was sure Brent could not hear, congratulated her. "It's wonderfully plucky of you, my dear," said he, "quite amazingly plucky--to get yourself together and go straight ahead, in spite of what your American friend has been doing to you."
"In spite of it." cried Susan. "Why, don't you see that it's because of what he's been doing? I felt it, all the time. I see it now."
"Oh, really--do you think so?" said Streathern.
His tone made it a polite and extremely discreet way of telling her he thought she had become as mad as Brent. She did not try to explain to him why she was improving. In that week she advanced by long strides, and Brent was radiant.
"Now we'll teach you scales," said he. "We'll teach you the mechanics of expressing every variety of emotion. Then we'll be ready to study a strong part."
She had known in the broad from the outset what Brent was trying to accomplish--that he was giving her the trade side of the art, was giving it to her quickly and systematically. But she did not appreciate how profoundly right he was until she was "learning scales." Then she understood why most so called "professional" performances are amateurish, haphazard, without any precision. She was learning to posture, and to utter every emotion so accurately that any spectator would recognize it at once.
"And in time your voice and your body," said Brent, "will become as much your servants as are Paderewski's ten fingers. He doesn't rely upon any such rot as inspiration. Nor does any master of any art. A mind can be inspired but not a body. It must be taught. You must first have a perfect instrument. Then, if you are a genius, your genius, having a perfect instrument to work with, will produce perfect results. To ignore or to neglect the mechanics of an art is to hamper or to kill inspiration. Geniuses--a few--and they not the greatest--have been too lazy to train their instruments. But anyone who is merely talented dares not take the risk. And you--we'd better assume--are merely talented."
Streathern, who had a deserved reputation as a coach, was disgusted with Brent's degradation of an art. As openly as he dared, he warned Susan against the danger of becoming a mere machine--a puppet, responding stiffly to the pulling of strings. But Susan had got over her momentary irritation against Brent, her doubt of his judgment in her particular case. She ignored Streathern's advice that she should be natural, that she should let her own temperament dictate variations on his cut and dried formulae for expression. She continued to do as she was bid.
"If you are not a natural born actress," said Brent," at least you will be a good one--so good that most critics will call you great. And if you are a natural born genius at acting, you will soon put color in the cheeks of these dolls I'm giving you--and ease into their bodies--and nerves and muscles and blood in place of the strings."
In the seventh week he abruptly took her out of the company and up to London to have each day an hour of singing, an hour of dancing, and an hour of fencing. "You'll ruin her health," protested Freddie. "You're making her work like a ditch digger."
Brent replied, "If she hasn't the health, she's got to abandon the career. If she has health, this training will give it steadiness and solidity. If there's a weakness anywhere, it'll show itself and can be remedied."
And he piled the work on her, dictated her hours of sleep, her hours for rest and for walking, her diet--and little he gave her to eat. When he had her thoroughly broken to his regimen, he announced that business compelled his going immediately to America. "I shall be back in a month," said he.
"I think I'll run over with you," said Palmer. "Do you mind, Susan?"
"Clelie and I shall get on very well," she replied. She would be glad to have both out of the way that she might give her whole mind to the only thing that now interested her. For the first time she was experiencing the highest joy that comes to mortals, the only joy that endures and grows and defies all the calamities of circumstances--the joy of work congenial and developing.
"Yes--come along," said Brent to Palmer. "Here you'll be tempting her to break the rules." He added, "Not that you would succeed. She understands what it all means, now--and nothing could stop her. That's why I feel free to leave her."
"Yes, I understand," said Susan. She was gazing away into space; at sight of her expression Freddie turned hastily away.
On a Saturday morning Susan and Clelie, after waiting on the platform at Euston Station until the long, crowded train for Liverpool and the Lusitania disappeared, went back to the lodgings in Half Moon Street with a sudden sense of the vastness of London, of its loneliness and dreariness, of its awkward inhospitality to the stranger under its pall of foggy smoke. Susan was thinking of Brent's last words:
She had said, "I'll try to deserve all the pains you've taken, Mr. Brent."
"Yes, I have done a lot for you," he had replied. "I've put you beyond the reach of any of the calamities of life--beyond the need of any of its consolations. Don't forget that if the steamer goes down with all on board."
And then she had looked at him--and as Freddie's back was half turned, she hoped he had not seen--in fact, she was sure he had not, or she would not have dared. And Brent--had returned her look with his usual quizzical smile; but she had learned how to see through that mask. Then--she had submitted to Freddie's energetic embrace--had given her hand to Brent--"Good-by," she had said; and "Good luck," he.
Beyond the reach of any of the calamities? Beyond the need of any of the consolations? Yes--it was almost literally true. She felt the big interest--the career--growing up within her, and expanding, and already overstepping all other interests and emotions.
Brent had left her and Clelie more to do than could be done; thus they had no time to bother either about the absent or about themselves. Looking back in after years on the days that Freddie was away, Susan could recall that from time to time she would find her mind wandering, as if groping in the darkness of its own cellars or closets for a lost thought, a missing link in some chain of thought. This even awakened her several times in the night--made her leap from sleep into acute and painful consciousness as if she had recalled and instantly forgotten some startling and terrible thing.
And when Freddie unexpectedly came--having taken passage on the Lusitania for the return voyage, after only six nights and five days in New York--she was astonished by her delight at seeing him, and by the kind of delight it was. For it rather seemed a sort of relief, as from a heavy burden of anxiety.
"Why didn't you wait and come with Brent?" asked she.
"Couldn't stand it," replied he. "I've grown clear away from New York--at least from the only New York I know. I don't like the boys any more. They bore me. They--offend me. And I know if I stayed on a few days they'd begin to suspect. No, it isn't Europe. It's--you. You're responsible for the change in me."
He was speaking entirely of the internal change, which indeed was great. For while he was still fond of all kinds of sporting, it was not in his former crude way; he had even become something of a connoisseur of pictures and was cultivating a respect for the purity of the English language that made him wince at Susan's and Brent's slang. But when he spoke thus frankly and feelingly of the change in him, Susan looked at him--and, not having seen him in two weeks and three days, she really saw him for the first time in many a month. She could not think of the internal change he spoke of for noting the external change. He had grown at least fifty pounds heavier than he had been when they came abroad. In one way this was an improvement; it gave him a dignity, an air of consequence in place of the boyish good looks of the days before the automobile and before the effects of high living began to show. But it made of him a different man in Susan's eyes--a man who now seemed almost a stranger to her.
"Yes, you have changed," replied she absently. And she went and examined herself in a mirror.
"You, too," said Freddie. "You don't look older--as I do. But--there's a--a--I can't describe it."
Susan could not see it. "I'm just the same," she insisted.
Palmer laughed. "You can't judge about yourself. But all this excitement--and studying--and thinking--and God knows what---- You're not at all the woman I came abroad with."
The subject seemed to be making both uncomfortable; they dropped it.
Women are bred to attach enormous importance to their physical selves--so much so that many women have no other sense of self-respect, and regard themselves as possessing the entirety of virtue if they have chastity or can pretend to have it. The life Susan had led upsets all this and forces a woman either utterly to despise herself, even as she is despised of men, or to discard the sex measure of feminine self-respect as ridiculously inadequate, and to seek some other measure. Susan had sought this other measure, and had found it. She was, therefore, not a little surprised to find--after Freddie had been back three or four days--that he was arousing in her the same sensations which a strange man intimately about would have aroused in her in the long past girlhood of innocence. It was not physical repulsion; it was not a sense of immorality. It was a kind of shyness, a feeling of violated modesty. She felt herself blushing if he came into the room when she was dressing. As soon as she awakened in the morning she sprang from bed beside him and hastened into her dressing-room and closed the door, resisting an impulse to lock it. Apparently the feeling of physical modesty which she had thought dead, killed to the last root, was not dead, was once more stirring toward life.
"What are you blushing about?" asked he, when she, passing through the bedroom, came suddenly upon him, very scantily dressed.
She laughed confusedly and beat a hurried retreat. She began to revolve the idea of separate bedrooms; she resolved that when they moved again she would arrange it on some pretext--and she was looking about for a new place on the plea that their quarters in Half Moon Street were too cramped. All this close upon his return, for it was before the end of the first week that she, taking a shower bath one morning, saw the door of the bathroom opening to admit him, and cried out sharply:
"Close that door!"
"It's I," Freddie called, to make himself heard above the noise of the water. "Shut off that water and listen."
She shut off the water, but instead of listening, she said, nervous but determined:
"Please close the door. I'll be out directly."
"Listen, I tell you," he cried, and she now noticed that his voice was curiously, arrestingly, shrill.
"Brent--has been hurt--badly hurt." She was dripping wet. She thrust her arms into her bathrobe, flung wide the partly open door. He was standing there, a newspaper in his trembling hand. "This is a dispatch from New York--dated yesterday," he began. "Listen," and he read:
"During an attempt to rob the house of Mr. Robert Brent, the distinguished playwright, early this morning, Mr. Brent was set upon and stabbed in a dozen places, his butler, James Fourget, was wounded, perhaps mortally, and his secretary, Mr. J. C. Garvey, was knocked insensible. The thieves made their escape. The police have several clues. Mr. Brent is hovering between life and death, with the chances against him."
Susan, leaning with all her weight against the door jamb, saw Palmer's white face going away from her, heard his agitated voice less and less distinctly--fell to the floor with a crash and knew no more.
When she came to, she was lying in the bed; about it or near it were Palmer, her maid, his valet, Clelie, several strangers. Her glance turned to Freddie's face and she looked into his eyes amid a profound silence. She saw in those eyes only intense anxiety and intense affection. He said:
"What is it, dear? You are all right. Only a fainting spell."
"Was that true?" she asked.
"Yes, but he'll pull through. The surgeons save everybody nowadays. I've cabled his secretary, Garvey, and to my lawyers. We'll have an answer soon. I've sent out for all the papers."
"She must not be agitated," interposed a medical looking man with stupid brown eyes and a thin brown beard sparsely veiling his gaunt and pasty face.
"Nonsense!" said Palmer, curtly. "My wife is not an invalid. Our closest friend has been almost killed. To keep the news from her would be to make her sick."
Susan closed her eyes. "Thank you," she murmured. "Send them all away--except Clelie. . . . Leave me alone with Clelie."
Pushing the others before him, Freddie moved toward the door into the hall. At the threshold he paused to say:
"Shall I bring the papers when they come?"
She hesitated. "No," she answered without opening her eyes. "Send them in. I want to read them, myself."
She lay quiet, Clelie stroking her brow. From time to time a shudder passed over her. When, in answer to a knock, Clelie took in the bundle of newspapers, she sat up in bed and read the meager dispatches. The long accounts were made long by the addition of facts about Brent's life. The short accounts added nothing to what she already knew. When she had read all, she sank back among the pillows and closed her eyes. A long, long silence in the room. Then a soft knock at the door. Clelie left the bedside to answer it, returned to say:
"Mr. Freddie wishes to come in with a telegram."
Susan started up wildly. Her eyes were wide and staring--a look of horror. "No--no!" she cried. Then she compressed her lips, passed her hand slowly over her brow. "Yes--tell him to come in."
Her gaze was upon the door until it opened, leaped to his face, to his eyes, the instant he appeared. He was smiling--hopefully, but not gayly.
"Garvey says"--and he read from a slip of paper in his hand--" `None of the wounds necessarily mortal. Doctors refuse to commit themselves, but I believe he has a good chance.'"
He extended the cablegram that she might read for herself, and said, "He'll win, my dear. He has luck, and lucky people always win in big things."
Her gaze did not leave his face. One would have said that she had not heard, that she was still seeking what she had admitted him to learn. He sat down where Clelie had been, and said:
"There's only one thing for us to do, and that is to go over at once."
She closed her eyes. A baffled, puzzled expression was upon her deathly pale face.
"We can sail on the Mauretania Saturday," continued he. "I've telephoned and there are good rooms."
She turned her face away.
"Don't you feel equal to going?"
"As you say, we must."
"The trip can't do you any harm." His forced composure abruptly vanished and he cried out hysterically: "Good God! It's incredible." Then he got himself in hand again, and went on: "No wonder it bowled you out. I had my anxiety about you to break the shock. But you---- How do you feel now?"
"I'm going to dress."
"I'll send you in some brandy." He bent and kissed her. A shudder convulsed her--a shudder visible even through the covers. But he seemed not to note it, and went on: "I didn't realize how fond I was of Brent until I saw that thing in the paper. I almost fainted, myself. I gave Clelie a horrible scare."
"I thought you were having an attack," said Clelie. "My husband looked exactly as you did when he died that way."
Susan's strange eyes were gazing intently at him--the searching, baffled, persistently seeking look. She closed them as he turned from the bed. When she and Clelie were alone and she was dressing, she said:
"Freddie gave you a scare?"
"I was at breakfast," replied Clelie, "was pouring my coffee. He came into the room in his bathrobe--took up the papers from the table opened to the foreign news as he always does. I happened to be looking at him"--Clelie flushed--"he is very handsome in that robe--and all at once he dropped the paper--grew white--staggered and fell into a chair. Exactly like my husband."
Susan, seated at her dressing-table, was staring absently out of the window. She shook her head impatiently, drew a long breath, went on with her toilet.