On his way down-town Phillips stopped at a Subway news-stand and bought all the morning papers. He acknowledged that he was vastly excited. As he turned in at the stage door he thrilled at sight of the big electric sign over the theater, pallid now in the morning sunshine, but symbolizing in frosted letters the thing for which he had toiled and fought, had hoped and despaired these many years. There it hung, a dream come true, and it read, "A Woman's Thrall, By Henry Phillips."
The stage-door man greeted him with a toothless smile and handed him a bundle of telegrams, mumbling: "I knew it would go over, Mr. Phillips. The notices are swell, ain't they?"
"They seem to be."
"I ain't seen their equal since 'The Music Master' opened. We'll run a year."
This differed from the feverish, half-hysterical praise of the evening before. Phillips had made allowances then for the spell of a first-night enthusiasm and had prepared himself for a rude awakening this morning--he had seen too many plays fail, to put much faith in the fulsomeness of first-nighters--but the words of the doorman carried conviction. He had felt confident up to the last moment, to be sure, for he knew he had put his life's best work into this drama, and he believed he had written with a master's cunning; nevertheless, when his message had gone forth a sudden panic had seized him. He had begun to fear that his judgment was distorted by his nearness to the play, or that his absorption in it had blinded him to its defects. It was evident now, however, that these fears had been ill-founded, for no play could receive such laudatory reviews as these and fail to set New-Yorkers aflame.
Certain printed sentences kept dancing through his memory: "Unknown dramatist of tremendous power," "A love story so pitiless, so true, that it electrifies," "The deep cry of a suffering heart," "Norma Berwynd enters the galaxy of stars."
That last sentence was the most significant, the most wonderful of all. Norma Berwynd a star! Phillips could scarcely credit it; he wondered if she had the faintest notion of how or why her triumph had been effected.
The property man met him, and he too was smiling.
"I just came from the office," he began. "Say! they're raving. It's the biggest hit in ten years."
"Oh, come now! It's too early for the afternoon papers--"
"The papers be blowed! It's the public that makes a play; the whole town knows about this one already. It's in and over, I tell you; we'll sell out tonight. Believe me, this is a knock-out--a regular bull's-eye. It won't take no government bonds to bridge us over the next two weeks."
"Did you get the new props?"
"Sure! The electrician is working on the drop light for the first act; we'll have a better glass crash tonight, and I've got a brand-new dagger. That other knife was all right, but Mr. Francis forgot how to handle it."
"Nevertheless, it's dangerous. We came near having a real tragedy last evening. Don't let's take any more chances."
"It wasn't my fault, on the level," the property man insisted. "Francis always 'goes up' at an opening."
"Thank Heaven the papers didn't notice it."
"Huh! We could afford to kill an actor for notices like them. It would make great advertising and please the critics. Say! I knew this show was a hit."
Under the dim-lit vault of the stage Phillips found the third-act scenery set for the rehearsal he had called, then, having given his instructions to the wardrobe woman, he drew a chair up before a bunch light and prepared to read for a second time the morning reviews.
He had attempted to read them at breakfast, but his wife--The playwright sighed heavily at the memory of that scene. Leontine had been very unjust, as usual. Her temper had run away with her again and had forced him to leave the house with his splendid triumph spoiled, his first taste of victory like ashes in his mouth. He was, in a way, accustomed to these endless, senseless rows, but their increasing frequency was becoming more and more trying, and he was beginning to doubt his ability to stand them much longer. It seemed particularly nasty of Leontine to seize upon this occasion to vent her open dislike of him--their relations were already sufficiently strained. Marriage, all at once, assumed a very lopsided aspect to the playwright; he had given so much and received so little.
With an effort he dismissed the subject from his mind and set himself to the more pleasant task of looking at his play through the eyes of the reviewers.
They had been very fair, he decided at last. Their only criticism was one which he had known to be inevitable, therefore he felt no resentment.
"Norma Berwynd was superb," he read; "she combined with rare beauty a personality at once bewitching and natural. She gave life to her lines; she was deep, intense, true; she rose to her emotional heights in a burst of power which electrified the audience. We cannot but wonder why such an artist has remained so long undiscovered."
The dramatist smiled; surely that was sufficient praise to compensate him for the miserable experience he had just undergone. He read further:
"Alas, that the same kind things cannot be said of Irving Francis, whose name is blazoned forth in letters of fire above the theater. He has established himself as one of America's brightest stars; but the role of John Danton does not enhance his reputation. In his lighter scenes he was delightful, but his emotional moments did not ring true. In the white-hot climax of the third act, for instance, which is the big scene of the play, he was stiff, unnatural, unconvincing. Either he saw Miss Berwynd taking the honors of stardom away from him and generously submerged his own talent in order to enhance her triumph, or it is but another proof of the statement that husband and wife do not make convincing lovers in the realm of the make-believe. It was surely due to no lack of opportunity on his part--"
So the writer thought Irving Francis had voluntarily allowed his wife to rival him. Phillips smiled at this. Some actors might be capable of such generosity, but hardly Irving Francis. He recalled the man's insistent demands during rehearsals that the 'script be changed to build up his own part and undermine that of his wife; the many heated arguments which had even threatened to prevent the final performance of the piece. Irving's egotism had blinded him to the true result of these quarrels, for although he had been given more lines, more scenes, Phillips had seen to it that Norma was the one to really profit by the changes. Author and star had been upon the verge of rupture more than once during that heartbreaking period of preparation, but Phillips was supremely glad now that he had held himself in control. Leontine's constant nagging had borne fruit, after all, in that it had at least taught him to bite down on his words, and to smile at provocation.
Yes! Norma Berwynd was a star in spite of herself, in spite of her husband. She was no longer merely the wife of Irving Francis, the popular idol. Phillips was glad that she did not know how long it had taken him to effect her independence, nor the price he had paid for it, since, under the circumstances, the truth could help neither of them.
He was aroused from his abstraction by the rustle of a woman's garments, and leaped to his feet with a glad light in his eyes, only to find Leontine, his wife, confronting him.
"Oh!" he said; then with an effort, "What is the matter?"
"I didn't know you were coming down-town."
"Whom were you expecting?" Leontine mocked, with that slight accent which betrayed her Gallic origin.
She regarded him with fixed hostility. "I came down to see your rehearsal. You don't object, I hope?"
"Why should I object?" Phillips turned away with a shrug. "I'm surprised, that's all--after what you said this morning. Isn't your interest in the play a trifle--tardy?"
"No! I've been greatly interested in it all the time. I read it several times in manuscript."
"Indeed! I didn't know that. It won't be much of a rehearsal this morning; I'm merely going to run over the third act with Mr. and Mrs. Francis."
"You can rehearse her forty years and she'll never play the part."
"The critics don't agree with you; they rave over her. If Francis himself--"
Mrs. Phillips uttered an exclamation of anger. "Oh, of course, she is perfect! You wouldn't give me the part, would you? No. You gave it to her. But it's mine by rights; I have the personality."
"I wrote it for her," said the husband, after a pause. "I can't see you in it."
"Naturally," she sneered. "Well, I can, and it's not too late to make the change. I'll replace her. My name will help the piece."
"Leontine!" he exclaimed, in amazement. "What are you talking about? The play is a tremendous success as it is, and Miss Berwynd is a big hit. I'd be crazy to make a change."
"You won't give me the part?"
"Certainly not. You shouldn't ask it."
"Doesn't Leontine Murat mean more to the public than Norma Berwynd?" she demanded.
"Until last night, yes. To-day--well, no. She has created this role. Besides--you--couldn't play the part."
"And why not, if you please?"
"I don't want to hurt your feelings, Leontine."
"Go on!" she commanded, in a voice roughened by passion.
"In the first place you're not--young enough." The woman quivered. "In the second place, you've grown heavy. Then, too, your accent--"
She broke out at him furiously. "So! I'm old and fat and foreign. I've lost my beauty. You think so, eh? Well, other men don't. I'll show you what men think of me--"
"This is no time for threats," he interrupted, coldly.
"Bah! I don't threaten." Seizing him by the arm, she swung him about, for she was a large woman and still in the fullest vigor of her womanhood. "Listen! You can't fool me. I know why you wrote this play. I know why you took that girl and made a star of her. I've known the truth all along."
"You have no cause to--"
"Don't lie!" she stormed at him. "I can read you like a book. But I won't stand for it." She flung his arm violently from her and turned away.
"I think you'd better go home," he told her. "You'll have the stage hands talking in a minute."
She laughed disagreeably, ignoring his words. "I watched you write this play! I have eyes, even if Irving Francis is blind. It's time he knew what is going on."
"There is nothing going on," Phillips cried, heatedly; but his wife merely shrugged her splendid shoulders and, opening her gold vanity case, gave her face a deft going over with a tiny powder puff. After a time the man continued: "I could understand your attitude if you--cared for me, but some years ago you took pains to undeceive me on that point."
Leontine's lip curled, and she made no answer.
"This play is a fine piece of property; it will bring us a great deal of money; it is the thing for which I have worked years."
"I am going to tell Francis the truth about you and his wife!" she said.
"But there's nothing to tell," the man insisted, with an effort to restrain himself. "Besides, you must know the result if you start a thing like that. He'll walk out and take his wife with him. That would ruin--"
"Give me her part."
"I won't be coerced," he flared up, angrily. "You are willing to ruin me, out of pique, I suppose, but I won't permit it. This is the biggest thing I ever did, or ever will do, perhaps; it means honor and recognition, and--you're selfish enough to spoil it all. I've never spoken to Norma Berwynd in any way to which her husband or you could object. Therefore I resent your attitude."
"My attitude! I'm your wife."
He took a turn across the stage, followed by her eyes. Pausing before her at length, he said, quietly: "I've asked you to go home and now I insist upon it. If you are here when I return I shall dismiss the rehearsal. I refuse to allow our domestic relations to interfere with my business." He strode out to the front of the house and then paced the dark foyer, striving to master his emotions. A moment later he saw his wife leave the stage and assumed that she had obeyed his admonitions and gone home.
The property-man appeared with an armful of draperies and mechanical appliances, interrupting his whistling long enough to call out.
"Here's the new hangings, Mr. Phillips, and the Oriental rugs. I've got the dagger, too." He held a gleaming object on high. "Believe me, it's some Davy Crockett. There's a newspaper guy out back and he wants your ideas on the American drama. I told him they were great. Will you see him?"
"Not now. Tell him to come back later."
"Say! That John Danton is some character. Why don't you let him have the gal?"
"Because--well, because it doesn't happen in real life, and I've tried to make this play real, more than anything else."
When Norma Berwynd and her husband arrived Phillips had completely regained his composure, and he greeted them cordially. The woman seemed awed, half-frightened, by her sudden rise to fame. She seemed to be walking in a dream, and a great wonder dwelt in her eyes. As for Francis, he returned the author's greeting curtly, making it plain that he was in no agreeable temper.
"I congratulate you, Phillips," he said. "You and Norma have become famous overnight."
The open resentment in his tone angered the playwright and caused him to wonder if their long-deferred clash was destined to occur this morning. He knew himself to be overwrought, and he imagined Francis to be in no better frame of mind; nevertheless, he answered, pacifically:
"If that is so we owe it to your art."
"Not at all. I see now what I failed to detect in reading and rehearsing the piece, and what you neglected to tell me, namely, that this is a woman's play. There's nothing in it for me. There's nothing in my part."
"Oh, come now! The part is tremendous; you merely haven't got the most out of it as yet."
Francis drew himself up and eyed the speaker coldly. "You're quoting the newspapers. Pray be more original. You know, of course, how I stand with these penny-a-liners; they never have liked me, but as for the part--" He shrugged. "I can't get any more out of it than there is in it."
"Doubtless that was my fault at rehearsals. I've called this one so we can fix up the weak spot in the third act."
"Well! We're on time. Where are the others?" Francis cast an inquiring glance about.
"I'll only rehearse you and Mrs. Francis."
"Indeed!" The former speaker opened his mouth for a cutting rejoinder, but changed his mind and stalked away into the shadowy depths of the wings.
"Please make allowances for him," Norma begged, approaching Phillips in order that her words might not be overheard. "I've never seen him so broken up over anything. He is always unstrung after an opening, but he is--terrible, this morning."
There was trouble, timidity, and another indefinable expression in the woman's eyes as they followed the vanishing figure of her husband; faint lines appeared at the corners of her mouth, lines which had no place in the face of a happily married woman. She was trembling, moreover, as if she had but recently played some big, emotional role, and Phillips felt the old aching pity for her tugging at his heart. He wondered if those stories about Francis could be true.
"It has been a great strain on all of us," he told her. "But you? How do you feel after all this?" He indicated the pile of morning papers, and at sight of them her eyes suddenly filled with that same wonder and gladness he had noticed when she first arrived.
"Oh-h! I--I'm breathless. Something clutches me--here." She laid her hand upon her bosom. "It's so new I can't express it yet, except--well, all of my dreams came true in a night. Some fairy waved her wand and, lo! poor ugly little me--" She laughed, although it was more like a sob. "I had no idea my part was so immense. Had you?"
"I had. I wrote it that way. My dreams, also, came true."
"But why?" A faint flush stole into her cheeks. "There are so many women who could have played the part better than I. You had courage to risk your piece in my hands, Mr. Phillips."
"Perhaps I knew you better than you knew yourself." She searched his face with startled curiosity. "Or better at least than the world knew you. Tell me, there is something wrong? I'm afraid he--resents your--"
"Oh no, no!" she denied, hastily, letting her eyes fall, but not before he had seen them fill again with that same expression of pain and bewilderment. "He's--not himself, that's all. I--You--won't irritate him? Please! He has such a temper."
Francis came out of the shadows scowling. "Well, let's get at it," said he.
Phillips agreed. "If you don't mind we'll start with your entrance. I wish you would try to express more depth of feeling, more tenderness, if you please, Mr. Francis. Remember, John Danton has fought this love of his for many years, undertaking to remain loyal to his wife. He doesn't dream that Diane returns his love, for he has never spoken, never even hinted of his feelings until this instant. Now, however, they are forced into expression. He begins reluctantly, frightened at the thing which makes him speak, then when she responds the dam breaks and his love over-rides his will power, his loyalty, his lifelong principles; it sweeps him onward and it takes her with him. The truth appals them both. They recognize its certain consequences and yet they respond freely, fiercely. You can't overplay the scene, Mr. Francis."
"Certainly I can overplay it," the star declared. "That's the danger. My effects should come from repression."
"I must differ with you. Repressive methods are out of place here. You see, John Danton loses control of himself--"
"Nonsense!" Francis declared, angrily.
"The effectiveness of the scene depends altogether upon its--well, its savagery. It must sweep the audience off its feet in order that the climax shall appear logical."
"Nonsense again! I'm not an old-school actor, and I can't chew scenery. I've gained my reputation by repressive acting, by intensity."
"This is not acting; this is real life."
Francis's voice rose a tone in pitch, and his eyes flashed at this stubborn resistance to his own set ideas.
"Great heavens, Phillips! Don't try to tell me my own business. People don't behave that way in real life; they don't explode under passion--not even jealousy or revenge; they are reserved. Reserve! That's the real thing; the other is all make-believe."
Seeing that it was useless to argue with the man, Phillips said nothing more, so Francis and his wife assumed their positions and began their lines.
It was a long scene and one demanding great force to sustain. It was this, in fact, which had led to the choice of Irving Francis for the principal role, for he was a man of tremendous physical power. He had great ability, moreover, and yet never, even at rehearsals, had he been able to invest this particular scene with conviction. Phillips had rehearsed him in it time and again, but he seemed strangely incapable of rising to the necessary heights. He was hollow, artificial; his tricks and mannerisms showed through like familiar trade marks. Strangely enough, the girl also had failed to get the most out of the scene, and this morning, both star and leading woman seemed particularly cold and unresponsive. They lacked the spark, the uplifting intensity, which was essential, therefore, in desperation, Phillips finally tried the expedient of altering their "business," of changing positions, postures, and crosses; but they went through the scene for a second time as mechanically as before.
Knowing every line as he did, feeling every heart throb, living and suffering as John Danton was supposed to be living and suffering, Phillips was nearly distracted. To him this was a wanton butchery of his finest work. He interrupted, at last, in a heart-sick, hopeless tone which sorely offended the already irritated Francis.
"I'm--afraid it's no use. You don't seem to get it."
"What is it I don't get?" roughly demanded the actor.
"You're not genuine--either of you. You don't seem to feel it."
"Humph! We're married!" said the star, so brutally that his wife flushed painfully. "I tell you I get all it's possible to get out of the scene. You wrote it and you see a lot of imaginary values; but they're not there. I'm no superman--no god! I can't give you more than the part contains."
"Look at it in this light," Phillips argued, after a pause. "Diane is a married woman; she, too, is fighting a battle; she is restrained by every convention, every sense of right, every instinct of wifehood and womanhood. Now, then, you must sweep all that aside; your own fire must set her ablaze despite--"
"I? I must do all this?" mocked the other, furiously. "Why must I do it all? Make Norma play up to me. She underplays me all the time; she's not in my key. That's what's the matter--and I'm damned tired of this everlasting criticism."
There was a strained silence, during which the two men faced each other threateningly, and a panic seized the woman.
She managed to say, uncertainly: "Perhaps I--should play up to you, Irving."
"On the contrary, I don't think the fault is yours," Phillips said, stiffly.
Again there was a dramatic silence, in which there was no element of the make-believe. It was the clash of two strong men who disliked each other intensely and whose masks were slipping. Neither they nor the leading woman detected a figure stealing out from the gloom, as if drawn by the magnetism of their anger.
"My fault, as usual," Francis sneered. "Understand this, Phillips, my reputation means something to me, and I won't be forced out of a good engagement by a--well, by you or by any other stage manager."
Phillips saw that same fearful look leap into the woman's eyes, and it checked his heated retort. "I don't mean to find fault with you," he declared, evenly. "I have the greatest respect for your ability as an actor, but--"
The star tossed his massive head in a peculiarly aggravating manner. "Perhaps you think you can play the part better than I?"
"Irving! Please!" breathed his wife.
"Show me how it should be done, if you feel it so strongly."
"Thank you, I will," Phillips answered, impulsively. "I'm not an actor, but I wrote this piece. What's more, I lived it before I wrote it. It's my own story, and I think I know how it should be played."
Francis smiled mockingly. "Good!" said he; "I shall learn something."
"Do you mind?" The author turned to the real Diane, and she shook her head, saying, uncertainly:
"It's--very good of you."
"Very well. If you will hold the manuscript, Mr. Francis, I'll try to show what I feel the scene lacks. However, I don't think I'll need any prompting. Now, then, we'll begin at John Danton's entrance."
With the mocking smile still upon his lips, Francis took the manuscript and seated himself upon the prompter's table.
It was by no means remarkable that Henry Phillips should know something about acting, for he had long been a stage manager, and in emergencies he has assumed a good many divergent roles. He felt no self-consciousness, therefore, as he exchanged places with Francis; only an intense desire to prove his contentions. He nerved himself to an unusual effort, but before he had played more than a few moments he forgot the hostile husband and began to live the part of John Danton as he had lived it in the writing, as he invariably lived it every time he read the play or saw it acted.
Nor, as he had said, did he need prompting, for the lines were not the written speeches of another which had been impressed upon his brain by the mechanical process of repetition; they were his own thoughts expressed in the simplest terms he knew, and they came forth unbidden, hot, eager. Once he began to voice them he was seized by that same mighty current which had drawn them from him in the first place and left them strewn upon paper like driftwood after a flood. He had acted every part of his play; he had spoken every line many times in solitude; but this was the first time he had faced the real Diane. He found himself mastered by a fierce exultation; he forgot that he was acting or that the woman opposite him was playing a role of his creation; he began to live his true life for the first time since he had met the wife of Irving Francis. Clothed in the make-believe, the real Henry Phillips spoke freely, feelingly. His very voice changed in timbre, in quality; it became rich, alive; his eyes caressed the woman and stirred her to a new response.
As for Irving Francis, he watched the transformation with astonishment. Grudgingly, resentfully, he acknowledged that this was indeed fine acting. He realized, too, that his blind egotism had served merely to prove the truth of the author's criticism and to emphasize his own shortcomings. The idea enraged him, but the spectacle held him enthralled.
Norma Berwynd was not slow to appreciate the truth. Accustomed thoroughly to every phase of the make-believe world in which she dwelt, she recognized unerringly in the new John Danton's words and actions something entirely unreal and apart from the theatrical. The conviction that Henry Phillips was not acting came to her with a blinding suddenness, and it threw her into momentary confusion, hence her responses were mechanical. But soon, without effort on her part, this embarrassment fell away and she in turn began to blaze. The flame grew as Phillips breathed upon it. She realized wildly that her heart had always hungered for words like these, and that, coming from his lips, they carried an altogether new and wondrous meaning; that they filled some long-felt, aching want of which she had been ignorant until this moment. The certainty that it was Phillips himself who spoke, and not a mere character of his creation, filled her with an exultant recklessness. She forgot her surroundings, her husband's presence, even the fact that the lines she spoke were not of her own making.
Never had the scene been played like this. It grew vital, it took on a tremendous significance. No one could have observed it and remained unresponsive. Francis let fall the manuscript and stared at the actors wonderingly. Since he was an actor, nothing was so real to him, nothing so thrilling, as the make-believe. He realized that this was indeed a magnificent exhibition of the artificial. With parted lips and pulse athrob he followed the wooing of that imaginary John Danton, in whom he could see no one but himself.
After a time he became conscious of a presence at his side, and heard some one breathing heavily. Turning with a start, he found Leontine Phillips at his shoulder. She, too, was aroused, but in her sneering visage was that which brought the actor abruptly out of his spell. She had emerged from the shadows noiselessly, and was leaning forward, her strong hands gripping the edge of the table littered with its many properties.
Mrs. Phillips had played emotional scenes herself, but never with such melodramatic intensity as she now unconsciously displayed. Her whole body shook as with an ague, her dark face was alive with a jealous fury which told Irving Francis the story he had been too dull to suspect. The truth, when it came home, smote him like a blow; his hatred for the author, which had been momentarily forgotten--momentarily lost in his admiration of the artist--rose up anew, and he recognized this occult spell which had held him breathless as the thrall of a vital reality, not, after all, the result of inspired acting. Instantly he saw past the make-believe, into the real, and what he saw caused him to utter a smothered cry.
Leontine turned her face to him. "You fool!" she whispered through livid lips.
Francis was a huge, leonine man; he rose now to his full height, as a cat rises. But the drama drew his gaze in spite of himself; he could not keep his eyes from his wife's face. Leontine plucked at his sleeve and whispered again:
Something contorted the actor's frame bitterly, and he gasped like a man throttled. Leontine could feel his muscles stiffen.
But the two players were in Elysium. They had reached the climax of the scene; Danton had told his love as only a great, starved love can tell itself, and with swimming eyes and fluttering lids, with heart pounding beneath her folded hands, Diane swayed toward him and his arms enfolded her. Her body met his, yielded; her face was upturned; her fragrant, half-opened lips were crushed to his in a fierce, impassioned kiss of genuine ecstasy.
Up to this moment the intensity of Francis's rage had held him paralyzed, despite the voice which was whispering so constantly at his ear; but now, when he saw his wife swooning upon the breast of the man who had played his part, he awoke.
"She knows he loves her," Leontine was saying. "You let him tell her in front of your face. He has taken her away from you!"
Mrs. Phillips's eyes fell upon the working fingers of the man as they rested beside her own. They were opening and closing hungrily. She also saw the naked knife which lay upon the table, and she moved it forward cautiously until the eager fingers twined about it. Then she breathed, "Go!" and shoved him forward fiercely.
It was Irving Francis's cry of rage as he rushed upon them which aroused Norma Berwynd from her dream, from her intoxication. She saw him towering at Phillips's back, and with a scream she tried to save the latter.
The husband's blow fell, however; it was delivered with all the savage fury that lay in Irving Francis's body, and his victim was fairly driven to his knees beneath it. The latter rose, then staggered, and, half sliding through the woman's sheltering embrace, crumpled limply into a massive upholstered chair. He, too, was dazed by the sudden transition from his real world to his make-believe.
When his eyes cleared he saw Norma Berwynd struggling with her husband, interposing her own slender body in his path. Francis was cursing her foully for her unfaithfulness; his voice was thick and brutal.
"Yes! It's true!" she cried, with hysterical defiance. "I never knew till now; but it's true! It's true!"
"You've killed him!" Leontine chattered, shrilly, and emerged from the shadows, her dark features ashen, her eyes ringed with white. Mrs. Francis turned from her husband and flung her arms about the recumbent man, calling wildly to him.
The denouement had come with such swiftness that it left all four of them appalled at their actions. Seeing what his brief insanity had led him into, Francis felt his strength evaporate; his face went white, his legs buckled beneath him. He scanned the place wildly in search of means of escape.
"My God! My God!" Leontine was repeating. "Why doesn't somebody come?"
Now that his brain had cleared, and he knew what hand had smitten him, and why, Phillips was by far the calmest of the four. He saw the knife at his feet and smiled, for no steel could rob him of that gladness which was pulsing through his veins. He was still smiling when he stooped and picked up the weapon. He arose, lifting Norma to her feet; then his hand slid down and sought hers.
"You needn't worry," he said to Francis. "You see--this is the new dagger I got for the end of the act."
He held it out in his open palm for all of them to see, and they noted that it was strangely shortened--that the point of the sliding blade was barely exposed beneath the hilt.
Francis wiped his wet face, then shuddered and cursed weakly with relief, meanwhile groping at the prompter's table for support. "Sold! A prop knife!" he cried.
"You--you're not really--" Norma swayed forward with eyes closed.
"By God! I meant it," the star exclaimed, uncertainly. "You can't deny--" He gasped and tugged at his collar.
"I believe there is nothing to deny," the author said, quietly. He looked first at his wife, then at his enemy, and then down at the quivering, white face upturned to his. "There is nothing to deny, is there?" he inquired of Norma.
"Nothing!" she said. "I--I'm glad to know the truth, that's all."
Francis glared first at one, then at the other, and as he did so he began to realize the full cost of his action. When it came home to him in terms of dollars and cents, he showed his true character by stammering:
"I--I made a frightful mistake. I'm--not myself; really, I'm not. It was your wife's fault." In a panic he ran on, unmindful of Leontine's scorn. "She did it, Mr. Phillips. She gave me the knife. She whispered things--she made me--I--I'm very sorry--Mr. Phillips, and I'll play the part the way you want it. I will, indeed."
Leontine met her husband's look defiantly; hence it was as much to her as to the cringing actor that the playwright said:
"Your salary will go on as usual, under your contract, Mr. Francis--that is, until the management supplies you with a new play; but I'm the real John Danton, and I shall play him tonight and henceforth."
"Then, I'm--discharged? Norma--d'you hear that? We're canceled. Fired!"
"No, Miss Berwynd's name will go up in lights as the star, if she cares to stay," said Phillips. "Do you wish to remain?" He looked down at the woman, and she nodded.
"Yes, oh yes!" she said. "I must stay. I daren't go back." That hunted look leaped into her eyes again, and Phillips recognized it now as fear, the abject physical terror of the weaker animal. "I want to go--forward--not backward, if there is any way."
"I'll show you the way," he told her, gently. "We'll find it together."
He smiled reassuringly, and with a little gasping sigh she placed her hand in his.
Return to the Rex Ellingwood Beach library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Scourge