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Richard Harding Davis

1892, 1920

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It was at the end of the first act of the first night of "The
Sultana," and every member of the Lester Comic Opera Company, from
Lester himself down to the wardrobe woman's son, who would have had to
work if his mother lost her place, was sick with anxiety.

There is perhaps only one other place as feverish as it is behind the
scenes on the first night of a comic opera, and that is a newspaper
office on the last night of a Presidential campaign, when the returns
are being flashed on the canvas outside, and the mob is howling, and
the editor-in-chief is expecting to go to the Court of St. James if
the election comes his way, and the office-boy is betting his wages
that it won't.

Such nights as these try men's souls; but Van Bibber passed the
stage-door man with as calmly polite a nod as though the piece had
been running a hundred nights, and the manager was thinking up
souvenirs for the one hundred and fiftieth, and the prima donna had,
as usual, began to hint for a new set of costumes. The stage-door
keeper hesitated and was lost, and Van Bibber stepped into the
unsuppressed excitement of the place with a pleased sniff at the
familiar smell of paint and burning gas, and the dusty odor that came
from the scene-lofts above.

For a moment he hesitated in the cross-lights and confusion about him,
failing to recognize in their new costumes his old acquaintances of
the company; but he saw Kripps, the stage-manager, in the centre of
the stage, perspiring and in his shirt-sleeves as always, wildly
waving an arm to some one in the flies, and beckoning with the other
to the gas-man in the front entrance. The stage hands were striking
the scene for the first act, and fighting with the set for the second,
and dragging out a canvas floor of tessellated marble, and running a
throne and a practical pair of steps over it, and aiming the high
quaking walls of a palace and abuse at whoever came in their way.

"Now then, Van Bibber," shouted Kripps, with a wild glance of
recognition, as the white-and-black figure came towards him, "you know
you're the only man in New York who gets behind here to-night. But you
can't stay. Lower it, lower it, can't you?" This to the man in the
flies. "Any other night goes, but not this night. I can't have it.
I - Where is the backing for the centre entrance? Didn't I tell you
men - "

Van Bibber dodged two stage hands who were steering a scene at him,
stepped over the carpet as it unrolled, and brushed through a group of
anxious, whispering chorus people into the quiet of the star's

The star saw him in the long mirror before which he sat, while his
dresser tugged at his boots, and threw up his hands desperately.

"Well," he cried, in mock resignation, "are we in it or are we not?
Are they in their seats still or have they fled?"

"How are you, John?" said Van Bibber to the dresser. Then he dropped
into a big arm-chair in the corner, and got up again with a protesting
sigh to light his cigar between the wires around the gas-burner. "Oh,
it's going very well. I wouldn't have come around if it wasn't. If the
rest of it is as good as the first act, you needn't worry."

Van Bibber's unchallenged freedom behind the scenes had been a source
of much comment and perplexity to the members of the Lester Comic
Opera Company. He had made his first appearance there during one hot
night of the long run of the previous summer, and had continued to be
an almost nightly visitor for several weeks. At first it was supposed
that he was backing the piece, that he was the "Angel," as those weak
and wealthy individuals are called who allow themselves to be led into
supplying the finances for theatrical experiments. But as he never
peered through the curtain-hole to count the house, nor made frequent
trips to the front of it to look at the box sheet, but was, on the
contrary, just as undisturbed on a rainy night as on those when the
"standing room only" sign blocked the front entrance, this supposition
was discarded as untenable. Nor did he show the least interest in the
prima donna, or in any of the other pretty women of the company; he
did not know them, nor did he make any effort to know them, and it was
not until they inquired concerning him outside of the theatre that
they learned what a figure in the social life of the city he really
was. He spent most of his time in Lester's dressing-room smoking,
listening to the reminiscences of Lester's dresser when Lester was on
the stage; and this seclusion and his clerical attire of evening dress
led the second comedian to call him Lester's father confessor, and to
suggest that he came to the theatre only to take the star to task for
his sins. And in this the second comedian was unknowingly not so very
far wrong. Lester, the comedian, and young Van Bibber had known each
other at the university, when Lester's voice and gift of mimicry had
made him the leader in the college theatricals; and later, when he had
gone upon the stage, and had been cut off by his family even after he
had become famous, or on account of it, Van Bibber had gone to visit
him, and had found him as simple and sincere and boyish as he had been
in the days of his Hasty-Pudding successes. And Lester, for his part,
had found Van Bibber as likable as did every one else, and welcomed
his quiet voice and youthful knowledge of the world as a grateful
relief to the boisterous _camaraderie_ of his professional
acquaintances. And he allowed Van Bibber to scold him, and to remind
him of what he owed to himself, and to touch, even whether it hurt or
not, upon his better side. And in time he admitted to finding his
friend's occasional comments on stage matters of value as coming from
the point of view of those who look on at the game; and even Kripps,
the veteran, regarded him with respect after he had told him that he
could turn a set of purple costumes black by throwing a red light on
them. To the company, after he came to know them, he was gravely
polite, and, to those who knew him if they had overheard, amusingly
commonplace in his conversation. He understood them better than they
did themselves, and made no mistakes. The women smiled on him, but the
men were suspicious and shy of him until they saw that he was quite as
shy of the women; and then they made him a confidant, and told him all
their woes and troubles, and exhibited all their little jealousies and
ambitions, in the innocent hope that he would repeat what they said to
Lester. They were simple, unconventional, light-hearted folk, and Van
Bibber found them vastly more entertaining and preferable to the
silence of the deserted club, where the matting was down, and from
whence the regular _habitu├ęs_ had departed to the other side or to
Newport. He liked the swing of the light, bright music as it came to
him through the open door of the dressing-room, and the glimpse he
got of the chorus people crowding and pushing for a quick charge up
the iron stairway, and the feverish smell of oxygen in the air, and
the picturesque disorder of Lester's wardrobe, and the wigs and
swords, and the mysterious articles of make-up, all mixed together on
a tray with half-finished cigars and autograph books and newspaper

And he often wished he was clever enough to be an artist with the
talent to paint the unconsciously graceful groups in the sharply
divided light and shadow of the wings as he saw them. The brilliantly
colored, fantastically clothed girls leaning against the bare brick
wall of the theatre, or whispering together in circles, with their
arms close about one another, or reading apart and solitary, or
working at some piece of fancy-work as soberly as though they were in
a rocking-chair in their own flat, and not leaning against a scene
brace, with the glare of the stage and the applause of the house just
behind them. He liked to watch them coquetting with the big fireman
detailed from the precinct engine-house, and clinging desperately to
the curtain wire, or with one of the chorus men on the stairs, or
teasing the phlegmatic scene-shifters as they tried to catch a
minute's sleep on a pile of canvas. He even forgave the prima donna's
smiling at him from the stage, as he stood watching her from the
wings, and smiled back at her with polite cynicism, as though he did
not know and she did not know that her smiles were not for him, but
to disturb some more interested one in the front row. And so, in time,
the company became so well accustomed to him that he moved in and
about as unnoticed as the stage-manager himself, who prowled around
hissing "hush" on principle, even though he was the only person who
could fairly be said to be making a noise.

The second act was on, and Lester came off the stage and ran to the
dressing-room and beckoned violently. "Come here," he said; "you ought
to see this; the children are doing their turn. You want to hear them.
They're great!"

Van Bibber put his cigar into a tumbler and stepped out into the
wings. They were crowded on both sides of the stage with the members
of the company; the girls were tiptoeing, with their hands on the
shoulders of the men, and making futile little leaps into the air to
get a better view, and others were resting on one knee that those
behind might see over their shoulders. There were over a dozen
children before the footlights, with the prima donna in the centre.
She was singing the verses of a song, and they were following her
movements, and joining in the chorus with high piping voices. They
seemed entirely too much at home and too self-conscious to please Van
Bibber; but there was one exception. The one exception was the
smallest of them, a very, very little girl, with long auburn hair and
black eyes; such a very little girl that every one in the house
looked at her first, and then looked at no one else. She was
apparently as unconcerned to all about her, excepting the pretty prima
donna, as though she were by a piano at home practising a singing
lesson. She seemed to think it was some new sort of a game. When the
prima donna raised her arms, the child raised hers; when the prima
donna courtesied, she stumbled into one, and straightened herself just
in time to get the curls out of her eyes, and to see that the prima
donna was laughing at her, and to smile cheerfully back, as if to say,
"_We_ are doing our best anyway, aren't we?" She had big, gentle eyes
and two wonderful dimples, and in the excitement of the dancing and
the singing her eyes laughed and flashed, and the dimples deepened and
disappeared and reappeared again. She was as happy and innocent
looking as though it were nine in the morning and she were playing
school at a kindergarten. From all over the house the women were
murmuring their delight, and the men were laughing and pulling their
mustaches and nudging each other to "look at the littlest one."

The girls in the wings were rapturous in their enthusiasm, and were
calling her absurdly extravagant titles of endearment, and making so
much noise that Kripps stopped grinning at her from the entrance, and
looked back over his shoulder as he looked when he threatened fines
and calls for early rehearsal. And when she had finished finally, and
the prima donna and the children ran off together, there was a roar
from the house that went to Lester's head like wine, and seemed to
leap clear across the footlights and drag the children back again.

"That settles it!" cried Lester, in a suppressed roar of triumph. "I
knew that child would catch them."

There were four encores, and then the children and Elise Broughten,
the pretty prima donna, came off jubilant and happy, with the Littlest
Girl's arms full of flowers, which the management had with kindly
forethought prepared for the prima donna, but which that delightful
young person and the delighted leader of the orchestra had passed over
to the little girl.

"Well," gasped Miss Broughten, as she came up to Van Bibber laughing,
and with one hand on her side and breathing very quickly, "will you
kindly tell me who is the leading woman now? Am I the prima donna, or
am I not? I wasn't in it, was I?"

"You were not," said Van Bibber.

He turned from the pretty prima donna and hunted up the wardrobe
woman, and told her he wanted to meet the Littlest Girl. And the
wardrobe woman, who was fluttering wildly about, and as delighted as
though they were all her own children, told him to come into the
property-room, where the children were, and which had been changed
into a dressing-room that they might be by themselves. The six little
girls were in six different states of dishabille, but they were too
little to mind that, and Van Bibber was too polite to observe it.

"This is the little girl, sir," said the wardrobe woman, excitedly,
proud at being the means of bringing together two such prominent
people. "Her name is Madeline. Speak to the gentleman, Madeline; he
wants to tell you what a great big hit youse made."

The little girl was seated on one of the cushions of a double throne
so high from the ground that the young woman who was pulling off the
child's silk stockings and putting woollen ones on in their place did
so without stooping. The young woman looked at Van Bibber and nodded
somewhat doubtfully and ungraciously, and Van Bibber turned to the
little girl in preference. The young woman's face was one of a type
that was too familiar to be pleasant.

He took the Littlest Girl's small hand in his and shook it solemnly,
and said, "I am very glad to know you. Can I sit up here beside you,
or do you rule alone?"

"Yes, ma'am - yes, sir," answered the little girl.

Van Bibber put his hands on the arms of the throne and vaulted up
beside the girl, and pulled out the flower in his button-hole and gave
it to her.

"Now," prompted the wardrobe woman, "what do you say to the

"Thank you, sir," stammered the little girl.

"She is not much used to gentlemen's society," explained the woman who
was pulling on the stockings.

"I see," said Van Bibber. He did not know exactly what to say next.
And yet he wanted to talk to the child very much, so much more than he
generally wanted to talk to most young women, who showed no hesitation
in talking to him. With them he had no difficulty whatsoever. There
was a doll lying on the top of a chest near them, and he picked this
up and surveyed it critically. "Is this your doll?" he asked.

"No," said Madeline, pointing to one of the children, who was much
taller than herself; "it's 'at 'ittle durl's. My doll he's dead."

"Dear me!" said Van Bibber. He made a mental note to get a live one in
the morning, and then he said: "That's very sad. But dead dolls do
come to life."

The little girl looked up at him, and surveyed him intently and
critically, and then smiled, with the dimples showing, as much as to
say that she understood him and approved of him entirely. Van Bibber
answered this sign language by taking Madeline's hand in his and
asking her how she liked being a great actress, and how soon she would
begin to storm because _that_ photographer hadn't sent the proofs. The
young woman understood this, and deigned to smile at it, but Madeline
yawned a very polite and sleepy yawn, and closed her eyes. Van Bibber
moved up closer, and she leaned over until her bare shoulder touched
his arm, and while the woman buttoned on her absurdly small shoes, she
let her curly head fall on his elbow and rest there. Any number of
people had shown confidence in Van Bibber - not in that form exactly,
but in the same spirit - and though he was used to being trusted, he
felt a sharp thrill of pleasure at the touch of the child's head on
his arm, and in the warm clasp of her fingers around his. And he was
conscious of a keen sense of pity and sorrow for her rising in him,
which he crushed by thinking that it was entirely wasted, and that the
child was probably perfectly and ignorantly happy.

"Look at that, now," said the wardrobe woman, catching sight of the
child's closed eyelids; "just look at the rest of the little dears,
all that excited they can't stand still to get their hats on, and she
just as unconcerned as you please, and after making the hit of the
piece, too."

"She's not used to it, you see," said the young woman, knowingly; "she
don't know what it means. It's just that much play to her."

This last was said with a questioning glance at Van Bibber, in whom
she still feared to find the disguised agent of a Children's Aid
Society. Van Bibber only nodded in reply, and did not answer her,
because he found he could not very well, for he was looking a long way
ahead at what the future was to bring to the confiding little being at
his side, and of the evil knowledge and temptations that would mar
the beauty of her quaintly sweet face, and its strange mark of
gentleness and refinement. Outside he could bear his friend Lester
shouting the refrain of his new topical song, and the laughter and the
hand-clapping came in through the wings and open door, broken but

"Does she come of professional people?" Van Bibber asked, dropping
into the vernacular. He spoke softly, not so much that he might not
disturb the child, but that she might not understand what he said.

"Yes," the woman answered, shortly, and bent her head to smooth out
the child's stage dress across her knees.

Van Bibber touched the little girl's head with his hand and found that
she was asleep, and so let his hand rest there, with the curls between
his fingers. "Are - are you her mother?" he asked, with a slight
inclination of his head. He felt quite confident she was not; at
least, he hoped not.

The woman shook her head. "No," she said.

"Who is her mother?"

The woman looked at the sleeping child and then up at him almost
defiantly. "Ida Clare was her mother," she said.

Van Bibber's protecting hand left the child as suddenly as though
something had burned it, and he drew back so quickly that her head
slipped from his arm, and she awoke and raised her eyes and looked up
at him questioningly. He looked back at her with a glance of the
strangest concern and of the deepest pity. Then he stooped and drew
her towards him very tenderly, put her head back in the corner of his
arm, and watched her in silence while she smiled drowsily and went to
sleep again.

"And who takes care of her now?" he asked.

The woman straightened herself and seemed relieved. She saw that the
stranger had recognized the child's pedigree and knew her story, and
that he was not going to comment on it. "I do," she said. "After the
divorce Ida came to me," she said, speaking more freely. "I used to be
in her company when she was doing 'Aladdin,' and then when I left the
stage and started to keep an actors' boarding-house, she came to me.
She lived on with us a year, until she died, and she made me the
guardian of the child. I train children for the stage, you know, me
and my sister, Ada Dyer; you've heard of her, I guess. The courts pay
us for her keep, but it isn't much, and I'm expecting to get what I
spent on her from what she makes on the stage. Two of them other
children are my pupils; but they can't touch Madie. She is a better
dancer an' singer than any of them. If it hadn't been for the Society
keeping her back, she would have been on the stage two years ago.
She's great, she is. She'll be just as good as her mother was."

Van Bibber gave a little start, and winced visibly, but turned it off
into a cough. "And her father," he said, hesitatingly, "does he - "

"Her father," said the woman, tossing back her head, "he looks after
himself, he does. We don't ask no favors of _him_. She'll get along
without him or his folks, thank you. Call him a gentleman? Nice
gentleman he is!" Then she stopped abruptly. "I guess, though, you
know him," she added. "Perhaps he's a friend of yourn?"

"I just know him," said Van Bibber, wearily.

He sat with the child asleep beside him while the woman turned to the
others and dressed them for the third act. She explained that Madie
would not appear in the last act, only the two larger girls, so she
let her sleep, with the cape of Van Bibber's cloak around her.

Van Bibber sat there for several long minutes thinking, and then
looked up quickly, and dropped his eyes again as quickly, and said,
with an effort to speak quietly and unconcernedly: "If the little girl
is not on in this act, would you mind if I took her home? I have a cab
at the stage-door, and she's so sleepy it seems a pity to keep her up.
The sister you spoke of or some one could put her to bed."

"Yes," the woman said, doubtfully, "Ada's home. Yes, you can take her
around, if you want to."

She gave him the address, and he sprang down to the floor, and
gathered the child up in his arms and stepped out on the stage. The
prima donna had the centre of it to herself at that moment, and all
the rest of the company were waiting to go on; but when they saw the
little girl in Van Bibber's arms they made a rush at her, and the
girls leaned over and kissed her with a great show of rapture and with
many gasps of delight.

"Don't," said Van Bibber, he could not tell just why. "Don't."

"Why not?" asked one of the girls, looking up at him sharply.

"She was asleep; you've wakened her," he said, gently.

But he knew that was not the reason. He stepped into the cab at the
stage entrance, and put the child carefully down in one corner. Then
he looked back over his shoulder to see that there was no one near
enough to hear him, and said to the driver, "To the Berkeley Flats, on
Fifth Avenue." He picked the child up gently in his arms as the
carriage started, and sat looking out thoughtfully and anxiously as
they flashed past the lighted shop-windows on Broadway. He was far
from certain of this errand, and nervous with doubt, but he reassured
himself that he was acting on impulse, and that his impulses were so
often good. The hall-boy at the Berkeley said, yes, Mr. Caruthers was
in, and Van Bibber gave a quick sigh of relief. He took this as an
omen that his impulse was a good one. The young English servant who
opened the hall door to Mr. Caruthers's apartment suppressed his
surprise with an effort, and watched Van Bibber with alarm as he laid
the child on the divan in the hall, and pulled a covert coat from the
rack to throw over her.

"Just say Mr. Van Bibber would like to see him," he said, "and you
need not speak of the little girl having come with me."

She was still sleeping, and Van Bibber turned down the light in the
hall, and stood looking down at her gravely while the servant went to
speak to his master.

"Will you come this way, please, sir?" he said.

"You had better stay out here," said Van Bibber, "and come and tell me
if she wakes."

Mr. Caruthers was standing by the mantel over the empty fireplace,
wrapped in a long, loose dressing-gown which he was tying around him
as Van Bibber entered. He was partly undressed, and had been just on
the point of getting into bed. Mr. Caruthers was a tall, handsome man,
with dark reddish hair, turning below the temples into gray; his
moustache was quite white, and his eyes and face showed the signs of
either dissipation or of great trouble, or of both. But even in the
formless dressing-gown he had the look and the confident bearing of a
gentleman, or, at least, of the man of the world. The room was very
rich-looking, and was filled with the medley of a man's choice of good
paintings and fine china, and papered with irregular rows of original
drawings and signed etchings. The windows were open, and the lights
were turned very low, so that Van Bibber could see the many gas lamps
and the dark roofs of Broadway and the Avenue where they crossed a few
blocks off, and the bunches of light on the Madison Square Garden, and

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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisVan Bibber and Others → online text (page 1 of 12)