Basil Duke Lee shut the front door behind him and turned on the dining-room light. His mother’s voice drifted sleepily downstairs:
“Basil, is that you?”
“No, mother, it’s a burglar.”
“It seems to me twelve o’clock is pretty late for a fifteen-year-old boy.”
“We went to Smith’s and had a soda.”
Whenever a new responsibility devolved upon Basil he was “a boy almost sixteen,” but when a privilege was in question, he was “a fifteen-year-old boy.”
There were footsteps above, and Mrs. Lee, in kimono, descended to the first landing.
“Did you and Riply enjoy the play?”
“Yes, very much.”
“What was it about?”
“Oh, it was just about this man. Just an ordinary play.”
“Didn’t it have a name?”
“‘Are You a Mason?’”
“Oh.” She hesitated, covetously watching his alert and eager face, holding him there. “Aren’t you coming to bed?”
“I’m going to get something to eat.”
For a moment he didn’t answer. He stood in front of a glassed-in bookcase in the living room, examining its contents with an equally glazed eye.
“We’re going to get up a play,” he said suddenly. “I’m going to write it.”
“Well—that’ll be very nice. Please come to bed soon. You were up late last night, too, and you’ve got dark circles under your eyes.”
From the bookcase Basil presently extracted “Van Bibber and Others,” from which he read while he ate a large plate of straw softened with half a pint of cream. Back in the living room he sat for a few minutes at the piano, digesting, and meanwhile staring at the colored cover of a song from “The Midnight Sons.” It showed three men in evening clothes and opera hats sauntering jovially along Broadway against the blazing background of Times Square.
Basil would have denied incredulously the suggestion that that was currently his favorite work of art. But it was.
He went upstairs. From a drawer of his desk he took out a composition book and opened it.
BASIL DUKE LEE
ST. REGIS SCHOOL
FIFTH FORM FRENCH
and on the next page, under Irregular Verbs:
|je connais||nous con|
He turned over another page.
MR. WASHINGTON SQUARE
A Musical Comedy by
BASIL DUKE LEE
Music by Victor Herbert
[The porch of the Millionaires’ Club, near New York. Opening Chorus, LEILIA and DEBUTANTES:
We sing not soft, we sing not loud
For no one ever heard an opening chorus.
We are a very merry crowd
But no one ever heard an opening chorus.
We’re just a crowd of debutantes
As merry as can be
And nothing that there is could ever bore us
We’re the wittiest ones, the prettiest ones.
In all society
But no one ever heard an opening chorus.
LEILIA (stepping forward): Well, girls, has Mr. Washington Square been around here today?
Basil turned over a page. There was no answer to Leilia’s question. Instead in capitals was a brand-new heading:
HIC! HIC! HIC!
A Hilarious Farce in One Act
BASIL DUKE LEE
[A fashionable apartment near Broadway, New York City. It is almost midnight. As the curtain goes up there is a knocking at the door and a few minutes later it opens to admit a handsome man in a full evening dress and a companion. He has evidently been imbibing, for his words are thick, his nose is red, and he can hardly stand up. He turns up the light and comes down center.
STUYVESANT: Hic! Hic! Hic!
O’HARA (his companion): Begorra, you been sayin’ nothing else all this evening.
Basil turned over a page and then another, reading hurriedly, but not without interest.
PROFESSOR PUMPKIN: Now, if you are an educated man, as you claim, perhaps you can tell me the Latin word for “this.”
STUYVESANT: Hic! Hic! Hic!
PROFESSOR PUMPKIN: Correct. Very good indeed. I—
At this point Hic! Hic! Hic! came to an end in midsentence. On the following page, in just as determined a hand as if the last two works had not faltered by the way, was the heavily underlined beginning of another:
THE CAPTURED SHADOW
A Melodramatic Farce in Three Acts
BASIL DUKE LEE
[All three acts take place in the library of the VAN BAKERS’ house in New York. It is well furnished with a red lamp on one side and some crossed spears and helmets and so on and a divan and a general air of an oriental den.
When the curtain rises MISS SAUNDERS, LEILIA VAN BAKER and ESTELLA CARRAGE are sitting at a table. MISS SAUNDERS is an old maid about forty very kittenish. LEILIA is pretty with dark hair. ESTELLA has light hair. They are a striking combination.
“The Captured Shadow” filled the rest of the book and ran over into several loose sheets at the end. When it broke off Basil sat for a while in thought. This had been a season of “crook comedies” in New York, and the feel, the swing, the exact and vivid image of the two he had seen, were in the foreground of his mind. At the time they had been enormously suggestive, opening out into a world much larger and more brilliant than themselves that existed outside their windows and beyond their doors, and it was this suggested world rather than any conscious desire to imitate “Officer 666,” that had inspired the effort before him. Presently he printed Act II at the head of a new tablet and began to write.
An hour passed. Several times he had recourse to a collection of joke books and to an old “Treasury of Wit and Humor” which embalmed the faded Victorian cracks of Bishop Wilberforce and Sydney Smith. At the moment when, in his story, a door moved slowly open, he heard a heavy creak upon the stairs. He jumped to his feet, aghast and trembling, but nothing stirred; only a white moth bounced against the screen, a clock struck the half-hour far across the city, a bird whacked its wings in a tree outside.
Voyaging to the bathroom at half-past four, he saw with a shock that morning was already blue at the window. He had stayed up all night. He remembered that people who stayed up all night went crazy, and transfixed in the hall, he tried agonizingly to listen to himself, to feel whether or not he was going crazy. The things around him seemed preternaturally unreal, and rushing frantically back into his bedroom, he began tearing off his clothes, racing after the vanishing night. Undressed, he threw a final regretful glance at his pile of manuscript—he had the whole next scene in his head. As a compromise with incipient madness he got into bed and wrote for an hour more.
Late next morning he was startled awake by one of the ruthless Scandinavian sisters who, in theory, were the Lees’ servants. “Eleven o’clock!” she shouted. “Five after!”
“Let me alone,” Basil mumbled. “What do you come and wake me up for?”
“Somebody downstairs.” He opened his eyes. “You ate all the cream last night,” Hilda continued. “Your mother didn’t have any for her coffee.”
“All the cream!” he cried. “Why, I saw some more.”
“It was sour.”
“That’s terrible,” he exclaimed, sitting up. “Terrible!”
For a moment she enjoyed his dismay. Then she said, “Riply Buckner’s downstairs,” and went out, closing the door.
“Send him up!” he called after her. “Hilda, why don’t you ever listen for a minute? Did I get any mail?”
There was no answer. A moment later Riply came in.
“My gosh, are you still in bed?”
“I wrote on the play all night. I almost finished Act Two.” He pointed to his desk.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about,” said Riply. “Mother thinks we ought to get Miss Halliburton.”
“Just to sort of be there.”
Though Miss Halliburton was a pleasant person who combined the occupations of French teacher and bridge teacher, unofficial chaperon and children’s friend, Basil felt that her superintendence would give the project an unprofessional ring.
“She wouldn’t interfere,” went on Riply, obviously quoting his mother. “I’ll be the business manager and you’ll direct the play, just like we said, but it would be good to have her there for prompter and to keep order at rehearsals. The girls’ mothers’ll like it.”
“All right,” Basil agreed reluctantly. “Now look, let’s see who we’ll have in the cast. First, there’s the leading man—this gentleman burglar that’s called The Shadow. Only it turns out at the end that he’s really a young man about town doing it on a bet, and not really a burglar at all.”
“No, that’s you.”
“Come on! You’re the best actor,” protested Riply.
“No, I’m going to take a smaller part, so I can coach.”
“Well, haven’t I got to be business manager?”
Selecting the actresses, presumably all eager, proved to be a difficult matter. They settled finally on Imogene Bissel for leading lady; Margaret Torrence for her friend, and Connie Davies for “Miss Saunders, an old maid very kittenish.”
On Riply’s suggestion that several other girls wouldn’t be pleased at being left out, Basil introduced a maid and a cook, “who could just sort of look in from the kitchen.” He rejected firmly Riply’s further proposal that there should be two or three maids, “a sort of sewing woman,” and a trained nurse. In a house so clogged with femininity even the most umbrageous of gentleman burglars would have difficulty in moving about.
“I’ll tell you two people we won’t have,” Basil said meditatively—“that’s Joe Gorman and Hubert Blair.”
“I wouldn’t be in it if we had Hubert Blair,” asserted Riply.
“Neither would I.”
Hubert Blair’s almost miraculous successes with girls had caused Basil and Riply much jealous pain.
They began calling up the prospective cast and immediately the enterprise received its first blow. Imogene Bissel was going to Rochester, Minnesota, to have her appendix removed, and wouldn’t be back for three weeks.
“How about Margaret Torrence?”
Basil shook his head. He had vision of Leilia Van Baker as someone rarer and more spirited than Margaret Torrence. Not that Leilia had much being, even to Basil—less than the Harrison Fisher girls pinned around his wall at school. But she was not Margaret Torrence. She was no one you could inevitably see by calling up half an hour before on the phone.
He discarded candidate after candidate. Finally a face began to flash before his eyes, as if in another connection, but so insistently that at length he spoke the name.
Though Evelyn Beebe was only sixteen, her precocious charms had elevated her to an older crowd and to Basil she seemed of the very generation of his heroine, Leilia Van Baker. It was a little like asking Sarah Bernhardt for her services, but once her name had occurred to him, other possibilities seemed pale.
At noon they rang the Beebes’ door-bell, stricken by a paralysis of embarrassment when Evelyn opened the door herself and, with politeness that concealed a certain surprise, asked them in.
Suddenly, through the portiere of the living room, Basil saw and recognized a young man in golf knickerbockers.
“I guess we better not come in,” he said quickly.
“We’ll come some other time,” Riply added.
Together they started precipitately for the door, but she barred their way.
“Don’t be silly,” she insisted. “It’s just Andy Lockheart.”
Just Andy Lockheart—winner of the Western Golf Championship at eighteen, captain of his freshman baseball team, handsome, successful at everything he tried, a living symbol of the splendid, glamorous world of Yale. For a year Basil had walked like him and tried unsuccessfully to play the piano by ear as Andy Lockheart was able to do.
Through sheer ineptitude at escaping, they were edged into the room. Their plan suddenly seemed presumptuous and absurd.
Perceiving their condition Evelyn tried to soothe them with pleasant banter.
“Well it’s about time you came to see me,” she told Basil. “Here I’ve been sitting at home every night waiting for you—ever since the Davies dance. Why haven’t you been here before?”
He stared at her blankly, unable even to smile, and muttered: “Yes, you have.”
“I have though. Sit down and tell me why you’ve been neglecting me! I suppose you’ve both been rushing the beautiful Imogene Bissel.”
“Why, I understand—” said Basil. “Why, I heard from somewhere that she’s gone up to have some kind of an appendicitis—that is—” He ran down to a pitch of inaudibility as Andy Lockheart at the piano began playing a succession of thoughtful chords, which resolved itself into the maxixe, an eccentric stepchild of the tango. Kicking back a rug and lifting her skirts a little, Evelyn fluently tapped out a circle with her heels around the floor.
They sat inanimate as cushions on the sofa watching her. She was almost beautiful, with rather large features and bright fresh color behind which her heart seemed to be trembling a little with laughter. Her voice and her lithe body were always mimicking, ceaselessly caricaturing every sound and movement near by, until even those who disliked her admitted that “Evelyn could always make you laugh.” She finished her dance now with a false stumble and an awed expression as she clutched at the piano, and Basil and Riply chuckled. Seeing their embarrassment lighten, she came and sat down beside them, and they laughed again when she said: “Excuse my lack of self-control.”
“Do you want to be the leading lady in a play we’re going to give?” demanded Basil with sudden desperation. “We’re going to have it at the Martindale School, for the benefit of the Baby Welfare.”
“Basil, this is so sudden.”
Andy Lockheart turned around from the piano.
“What’re you going to give—a minstrel show?”
“No, it’s a crook play named ‘The Captured Shadow’. Miss Halliburton is going to coach it.” He suddenly realized the convenience of that name to shelter himself behind.
“Why don’t you give something like ‘The Private Secretary’?” interrupted Andy. “There’s a good play for you. We gave it my last year at school.”
“Oh, no, it’s all settled,” said Basil quickly. “We’re going to put on this play that I wrote.”
“You wrote it yourself?” exclaimed Evelyn.
“My-y gosh!” said Andy. He began to play again.
“Look, Evelyn,” said Basil. “It’s only for three weeks, and you’d be the leading lady.”
She laughed. “Oh, no. I couldn’t. Why don’t you get Imogene?”
“She’s sick, I tell you. Listen—”
“Or Margaret Torrence?”
“I don’t want anybody but you.”
The directness of this appeal touched her and momentarily she hesitated. But the hero of the Western Golf Championship turned around from the piano with a teasing smile and she shook her head.
“I can’t do it, Basil. I may have to go East with the family.”
Reluctantly Basil and Riply got up.
“Gosh, I wish you’d be in it, Evelyn.”
“I wish I could.”
Basil lingered, thinking fast, wanting her more than ever; indeed, without her, it scarcely seemed worth while to go on with the play. Suddenly a desperate expedient took shape on his lips:
“You certainly would be wonderful. You see, the leading man is going to be Hubert Blair.”
Breathlessly he watched her, saw her hesitate.
“Good-by,” he said.
She came with them to the door and then out on the veranda, frowning a little.
“How long did you say the rehearsals would take?” she asked thoughtfully.
On an August evening three days later Basil read the play to the cast on Miss Halliburton’s porch. He was nervous and at first there were interruptions of “Louder” and “Not so fast.” Just as his audience was beginning to be amused by the repartee of the two comic crooks—repartee that had seen service with Weber and Fields—he was interrupted by the late arrival of Hubert Blair.
Hubert was fifteen, a somewhat shallow boy save for two or three felicities which he possessed to an extraordinary degree. But one excellence suggests the presence of others, and young ladies never failed to respond to his most casual fancy, enduring his fickleness of heart and never convinced that his fundamental indifference might not be overcome. They were dazzled by his flashing self-confidence, by his cherubic ingenuousness, which concealed a shrewd talent for getting around people, and by his extraordinary physical grace. Long-legged, beautifully proportioned, he had that tumbler’s balance usually characteristic only of men “built near the ground.” He was in constant motion that was a delight to watch, and Evelyn Beebe was not the only older girl who had found in him a mysterious promise and watched him for a long time with something more than curiosity.
He stood in the doorway now with an expression of bogus reverence on his round pert face.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Is this the First Methodist Episcopal Church?” Everybody laughed—even Basil. “I didn’t know. I thought maybe I was in the right church, but in the wrong pew.”
They laughed again, somewhat discouraged. Basil waited until Hubert had seated himself beside Evelyn Beebe. Then he began to read once more, while the others, fascinated, watched Hubert’s efforts to balance a chair on its hind legs. This squeaky experiment continued as an undertone to the reading. Not until Basil’s desperate “Now, here’s where you come in, Hube,” did attention swing back to the play.
Basil read for more than an hour. When, at the end, he closed the composition book and looked up shyly, there was a burst of spontaneous applause. He had followed his models closely, and for all its grotesqueries, the result was actually interesting—it was a play. Afterward he lingered, talking to Miss Halliburton, and he walked home glowing with excitement and rehearsing a little by himself into the August night.
The first week of rehearsal was a matter of Basil climbing back and forth from auditorium to stage, crying, “No! Look here, Connie; you come in more like this.” Then things began to happen. Mrs. Van Schellinger came to rehearsal one day, and lingering afterward, announced that she couldn’t let Gladys be in “a play about criminals.” Her theory was that this element could be removed; for instance, the two comic crooks could be changed to “two funny farmers.”
Basil listened with horror. When she had gone he assured Miss Halliburton that he would change nothing. Luckily Gladys played the cook, an interpolated part that could be summarily struck out, but her absence was felt in another way. She was tranquil and tractable, “the most carefully brought-up girl in town,” and at her withdrawal rowdiness appeared during rehearsals. Those who had only such lines as “I’ll ask Mrs. Van Baker, sir,” in Act I and “No, ma’am,” in Act III showed a certain tendency to grow restless in between. So now it was:
“Please keep that dog quiet or else send him home!” or:
“Where’s that maid? Wake up, Margaret, for heaven’s sake!” or:
“What is there to laugh at that’s so darn funny?”
More and more the chief problem was the tactful management of Hubert Blair. Apart from his unwillingness to learn his lines, he was a satisfactory hero, but off the stage he became a nuisance. He gave an endless private performance for Evelyn Beebe, which took such forms as chasing her amorously around the hall or of flipping peanuts over his shoulder to land mysteriously on the stage. Called to order, he would mutter, “Aw, shut up yourself,” just loud enough for Basil to guess, but not to hear.
But Evelyn Beebe was all that Basil had expected. Once on the stage, she compelled a breathless attention, and Basil recognized this by adding to her part. He envied the half-sentimental fun that she and Hubert derived from their scenes together and he felt a vague, impersonal jealousy that almost every night after rehearsal they drove around together in Hubert’s car.
One afternoon when matters had progressed a fortnight, Hubert came in an hour late, loafed through the first act and then informed Miss Halliburton that he was going home.
“What for?” Basil demanded.
“I’ve got some things I got to do.”
“Are they important?”
“What business is that of yours?”
“Of course it’s my business,” said Basil heatedly, whereupon Miss Halliburton interfered.
“There’s no use of anybody getting angry. What Basil means, Hubert, is that if it’s just some small thing—why, we’re all giving up our pleasures to make this play a success.”
Hubert listened with obvious boredom.
“I’ve got to drive downtown and get father.”
He looked coolly at Basil, as if challenging him to deny the adequacy of this explanation.
“Then why did you come an hour late?” demanded Basil.
“Because I had to do something for mother.”
A group had gathered and he glanced around triumphantly. It was one of those sacred excuses, and only Basil saw that it was disingenuous.
“Oh, tripe!” he said.
“Maybe you think so—Bossy.”
Basil took a step toward him, his eyes blazing.
“What’d you say?”
“I said ‘Bossy.’ Isn’t that what they call you at school?”
It was true. It had followed him home. Even as he went white with rage a vast impotence surged over him at the realization that the past was always lurking near. The faces of school were around him, sneering and watching. Hubert laughed.
“Get out!” said Basil in a strained voice. “Go on! Get right out!”
Hubert laughed again, but as Basil took a step toward him he retreated.
“I don’t want to be in your play anyhow. I never did.”
“Then go on out of this hall.”
“Now, Basil!” Miss Halliburton hovered breathlessly beside them. Hubert laughed again and looked about for his cap.
“I wouldn’t be in your crazy old show,” he said. He turned slowly and jauntily, and sauntered out the door.
Riply Buckner read Hubert’s part that afternoon, but there was a cloud upon the rehearsal. Miss Beebe’s performance lacked its customary verve and the others clustered and whispered, falling silent when Basil came near. After the rehearsal, Miss Halliburton, Riply and Basil held a conference. Upon Basil flatly refusing to take the leading part, it was decided to enlist a certain Mayall De Bec, known slightly to Riply, who had made a name for himself in theatricals at the Central High School.
But next day a blow fell that was irreparable. Evelyn, flushed and uncomfortable, told Basil and Miss Halliburton that her family’s plans had changed—they were going East next week and she couldn’t be in the play after all. Basil understood. Only Hubert had held her this long.
“Good-by,” he said gloomily.
His manifest despair shamed her and she tried to justify herself.
“Really, I can’t help it. Oh, Basil, I’m so sorry!”
“Couldn’t you stay over a week with me after your family goes?” Miss Halliburton asked innocently.
“Not possibly. Father wants us all to go together. That’s the only reason. If it wasn’t for that I’d stay.”
“All right,” Basil said. “Good-by.”
“Basil, you’re not mad, are you?” A gust of repentance swept over her. “I’ll do anything to help. I’ll come to rehearsals this week until you get someone else, and then I’ll try to help her all I can. But father says we’ve got to go.”
In vain Riply tried to raise Basil’s morale after the rehearsal that afternoon, making suggestions which he waved contemptuously away. Margaret Torrence? Connie Davies? They could hardly play the parts they had. It seemed to Basil as if the undertaking was falling to pieces before his eyes.
It was still early when he got home. He sat dispiritedly by his bedroom window, watching the little Barnfield boy playing a lonesome game by himself in the yard next door.
His mother came in at five, and immediately sensed his depression.
“Teddy Barnfield has the mumps,” she said, in an effort to distract him. “That’s why he’s playing there all alone.”
“Has he?” he responded listlessly.
“It isn’t at all dangerous, but it’s very contagious. You had it when you were seven.”
“Are you worrying about your play? Has anything gone wrong?”
“No, mother. I just want to be alone.”
After a while he got up and started after a malted milk at the soda fountain around the corner. It was half in his mind to see Mr. Beebe and ask him if he couldn’t postpone his trip East. If he could only be sure that that was Evelyn’s real reason.
The sight of Evelyn’s nine-year-old brother coming along the street broke in on his thoughts.
“Hello, Ham. I hear you’re going away.”
“Going next week. To the seashore.”
Basil looked at him speculatively, as if, through his proximity to Evelyn, he held the key to the power of moving her.
“Where are you going now?” he asked.
“I’m going to play with Teddy Barnfield.”
“What!” Basil exclaimed. “Why, didn’t you know—” He stopped. A wild, criminal idea broke over him; his mother’s words floated through his mind: “It isn’t at all dangerous, but it’s very contagious.” If little Ham Beebe got the mumps, and Evelyn couldn’t go away—
He came to a decision quickly and coolly.
“Teddy’s playing in his back yard,” he said. “If you want to see him without going through his house, why don’t you go down this street and turn up the alley?”
“All right. Thanks,” said Ham trustingly.
Basil stood for a minute looking after him until he turned the corner into the alley, fully aware that it was the worst thing he had ever done in his life.
A week later Mrs. Lee had an early supper—all Basil’s favorite things: chipped beef, french-fried potatoes, sliced peaches and cream, and devil’s food.
Every few minutes Basil said, “Gosh! I wonder what time it is,” and went out in the hall to look at the clock. “Does that clock work right?” he demanded with sudden suspicion. It was the first time the matter had ever interested him.
“Perfectly all right. If you eat so fast you’ll have indigestion and then you won’t be able to act well.”
“What do you think of the program?” he asked for the third time. “Riply Buckner, Jr., presents Basil Duke Lee’s comedy, ‘The Captured Shadow.’”
“I think it’s very nice.”
“He doesn’t really present it.”
“It sounds very well though.”
“I wonder what time it is?” he inquired.
“You just said it was ten minutes after six.”
“Well, I guess I better be starting.”
“Eat your peaches, Basil. If you don’t eat you won’t be able to act.”
“I don’t have to act,” he said patiently. “All I am is a small part, and it wouldn’t matter—” It was too much trouble to explain.
“Please don’t smile at me when I come on, mother,” he requested. “Just act as if I was anybody else.”
“Can’t I even say how-do-you-do?”
“What?” Humor was lost on him. He said good-by. Trying very hard to digest not his food but his heart, which had somehow slipped down into his stomach, he started off for the Martindale School.
As its yellow windows loomed out of the night his excitement became insupportable; it bore no resemblance to the building he had been entering so casually for three weeks. His footsteps echoed symbolically and portentously in its deserted hall; upstairs there was only the janitor setting out the chairs in rows, and Basil wandered about the vacant stage until someone came in.
It was Mayall De Bec, the tall, clever, not very likeable youth they had imported from Lower Crest Avenue to be the leading man. Mayall, far from being nervous, tried to engage Basil in casual conversation. He wanted to know if Basil thought Evelyn Beebe would mind if he went to see her sometime when the show was over. Basil supposed not. Mayall said he had a friend whose father owned a brewery who owned a twelve-cylinder car.
Basil said, “Gee!”
At quarter to seven the participants arrived in groups—Riply Buckner with the six boys he had gathered to serve as ticket takers and ushers; Miss Halliburton, trying to seem very calm and reliable; Evelyn Beebe, who came in as if she were yielding herself up to something and whose glance at Basil seemed to say: “Well, it looks as if I’m really going through with it after all.”
Mayall De Bec was to make up the boys and Miss Halliburton the girls. Basil soon came to the conclusion that Miss Halliburton knew nothing about make-up, but he judged it diplomatic, in that lady’s overwrought condition, to say nothing, but to take each girl to Mayall for corrections when Miss Halliburton had done.
An exclamation from Bill Kampf, standing at a crack in the curtain, brought Basil to his side. A tall bald-headed man in spectacles had come in and was shown to a seat in the middle of the house, where he examined the program. He was the public. Behind those waiting eyes, suddenly so mysterious and incalculable, was the secret of the play’s failure or success. He finished the program, took off his glasses and looked around. Two old ladies and two little boys came in, followed immediately by a dozen more.
“Hey, Riply,” Basil called softly. “Tell them to put the children down in front.”
Riply, struggling into his policeman’s uniform, looked up, and the long black mustache on his upper lip quivered indignantly.
“I thought of that long ago.”
The hall, filling rapidly, was now alive with the buzz of conversation. The children in front were jumping up and down in their seats, and everyone was talking and calling back and forth save the several dozen cooks and housemaids who sat in stiff and quiet pairs about the room.
Then, suddenly, everything was ready. It was incredible. “Stop! Stop!” Basil wanted to say. “It can’t be ready. There must be something—there always has been something,” but the darkened auditorium and the piano and violin from Geyer’s Orchestra playing “Meet Me in the Shadows” belied his words. Miss Saunders, Leilia Van Baker and Leilia’s friend, Estella Carrage, were already seated on the stage, and Miss Halliburton stood in the wings with the prompt book. Suddenly the music ended and the chatter in front died away.
“Oh, gosh!” Basil thought. “Oh, my gosh!”
The curtain rose. A clear voice floated up from somewhere. Could it be from that unfamiliar group on the stage?
I will, Miss Saunders. I tell you I will!
But, Miss Leilia, I don’t consider the newspapers proper for young ladies nowadays.
I don’t care. I want to read about this wonderful gentleman burglar they call The Shadow.
It was actually going on. Almost before he realized it, a ripple of laughter passed over the audience as Evelyn gave her imitation of Miss Saunders behind her back.
“Get ready, Basil,” breathed Miss Halliburton.
Basil and Bill Kampf, the crooks, each took an elbow of Victor Van Baker, the dissolute son of the house, and made ready to aid him through the front door.
It was strangely natural to be out on the stage with all those eyes looking up encouragingly. His mother’s face floated past him, other faces that he recognized and remembered.
Bill Kampf stumbled on a line and Basil picked him up quickly and went on.
MISS SAUNDERS: So you are alderman from the Sixth Ward?
RABBIT SIMMONS: Yes, ma’am.
MISS SAUNDERS (shaking her head kittenishly): Just what is an alderman?
CHINAMAN RUDD: An alderman is halfway between a politician and a pirate.
This was one of Basil’s lines that he was particularly proud of—but there was not a sound from the audience, not a smile. A moment later Bill Kampf absent-mindedly wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and then stared at it, startled by the red stains of make-up on it—and the audience roared. The theater was like that.
MISS SAUNDERS: Then you believe in spirits, Mr. Rudd.
CHINAMAN RUDD: Yes, ma’am, I certainly do believe in spirits. Have you got any?
The first big scene came. On the darkened stage a window rose slowly and Mayall De Bec, “in a full evening dress,” climbed over the sill. He was tiptoeing cautiously from one side of the stage to the other, when Leilia Van Baker came in. For a moment she was frightened, but he assured her that he was a friend of her brother Victor. They talked. She told him naively yet feelingly of her admiration for The Shadow, of whose exploits she had read. She hoped, though, that The Shadow would not come here tonight, as the family jewels were all in that safe at the right.
The stranger was hungry. He had been late for his dinner and so had not been able to get any that night. Would he have some crackers and milk? That would be fine. Scarcely had she left the room when he was on his knees by the safe, fumbling at the catch, undeterred by the unpromising word “Cake” stencilled on the safe’s front. It swung open, but he heard footsteps outside and closed it just as Leilia came back with the crackers and milk.
They lingered, obviously attracted to each other. Miss Saunders came in, very kittenish, and was introduced. Again Evelyn mimicked her behind her back and the audience roared. Other members of the household appeared and were introduced to the stranger.
What’s this? A banging at the door, and Mulligan, a policeman, rushes in.
We have just received word from the Central Office that the notorious Shadow has been seen climbing in the window! No one can leave this house tonight!
The curtain fell. The first rows of the audience—the younger brothers and sisters of the cast—were extravagant in their enthusiasm. The actors took a bow.
A moment later Basil found himself alone with Evelyn Beebe on the stage. A weary doll in her make-up she was leaning against a table.
“Heigh-ho, Basil,” she said.
She had not quite forgiven him for holding her to her promise after her little brother’s mumps had postponed their trip East, and Basil had tactfully avoided her, but now they met in the genial glow of excitement and success.
“You were wonderful,” he said—“Wonderful!”
He lingered a moment. He could never please her, for she wanted someone like herself, someone who could reach her through her senses, like Hubert Blair. Her intuition told her that Basil was of a certain vague consequence; beyond that his incessant attempts to make people think and feel, bothered and wearied her. But suddenly, in the glow of the evening, they leaned forward and kissed peacefully, and from that moment, because they had no common ground even to quarrel on, they were friends for life.
When the curtain rose upon the second act Basil slipped down a flight of stairs and up to another to the back of the hall, where he stood watching in the darkness. He laughed silently when the audience laughed, enjoying it as if it were a play he had never seen before.
There was a second and a third act scene that were very similar. In each of them The Shadow, alone on the stage, was interrupted by Miss Saunders. Mayall De Bec, having had but ten days of rehearsal, was inclined to confuse the two, but Basil was totally unprepared for what happened. Upon Connie’s entrance Mayall spoke his third-act line and involuntarily Connie answered in kind.
Others coming on the stage were swept up in the nervousness and confusion, and suddenly they were playing the third act in the middle of the second. It happened so quickly that for a moment Basil had only a vague sense that something was wrong. Then he dashed down one stairs and up another and into the wings, crying:
“Let down the curtain! Let down the curtain!”
The boys who stood there aghast sprang to the rope. In a minute Basil, breathless, was facing the audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there’s been changes in the cast and what just happened was a mistake. If you’ll excuse us we’d like to do that scene over.”
He stepped back in the wings to a flutter of laughter and applause.
“All right, Mayall!” he called excitedly. “On the stage alone. Your line is: ‘I just want to see that the jewels are all right,’ and Connie’s is: ‘Go ahead, don’t mind me.’ All right! Curtain up!”
In a moment things righted themselves. Someone brought water for Miss Halliburton, who was in a state of collapse, and as the act ended they all took a curtain call once more. Twenty minutes later it was over. The hero clasped Leilia Van Baker to his breast, confessing that he was The Shadow, “and a captured Shadow at that”; the curtain went up and down, up and down; Miss Halliburton was dragged unwillingly on the stage and the ushers came up the aisles laden with flowers. Then everything became informal and the actors mingled happily with the audience, laughing and important, congratulated from all sides. An old man whom Basil didn’t know came up to him and shook his hand, saying, “You’re a young man that’s going to be heard from some day,” and a reporter from the paper asked him if he was really only fifteen. It might all have been very bad and demoralizing for Basil, but it was already behind him. Even as the crowd melted away and the last few people spoke to him and went out, he felt a great vacancy come into his heart. It was over, it was done and gone—all that work, and interest and absorption. It was a hollowness like fear.
“Good night, Miss Halliburton. Good night, Evelyn.”
“Good night, Basil. Congratulations, Basil. Good night.”
“Where’s my coat? Good night, Basil.”
“Leave your costumes on the stage, please. They’ve got to go back tomorrow.”
He was almost the last to leave, mounting to the stage for a moment and looking around the deserted hall. His mother was waiting and they strolled home together through the first cool night of the year.
“Well, I thought it went very well indeed. Were you satisfied?” He didn’t answer for a moment. “Weren’t you satisfied with the way it went?”
“Yes.” He turned his head away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” and then, “Nobody really cares, do they?”
“Everybody cares about different things. I care about you, for instance.”
Instinctively he ducked away from a hand extended caressingly toward him: “Oh, don’t. I don’t mean like that.”
“You’re just overwrought, dear.”
“I am not overwrought. I just feel sort of sad.”
“You shouldn’t feel sad. Why, people told me after the play—”
“Oh, that’s all over. Don’t talk about that—don’t ever talk to me about that any more.”
“Then what are you sad about?”
“Oh, about a little boy.”
“What little boy?”
“Oh, little Ham—you wouldn’t understand.”
“When we get home I want you to take a real hot bath and quiet your nerves.”
But when he got home he fell immediately into deep sleep on the sofa. She hesitated. Then covering him with a blanket and a comforter, she pushed a pillow under his protesting head and went upstairs.
She knelt for a long time beside her bed.
“God, help him! help him,” she prayed, “because he needs help that I can’t give him any more.”
Published in Saturday Evening Post (29 December 1928)