PETER ERICSON MANN leaned back in his chair and let his hands fall listlessly from the typewriter to his lap.He raised them again and laboriously pecked out a few words.It was no use.He got up, walked to one of the front windows of the dingy old studio and peered gloomily out at the bare trees and brown grass patches of Washington Square.
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PETER ERICSON MANN leaned back in his chair and let his hands fall listlessly from the typewriter to his lap.
He raised them again and laboriously pecked out a few words.
It was no use.
He got up, walked to one of the front windows of the dingy old studio and peered gloomily out at the bare trees and brown grass patches of Washington Square.
Peter was a playwright of three early (and partial) successes, and two more recent failures. He was thirty-three years old; and a typical New Yorker, born in Iowa, he dressed conspicuously, well, making it a principle when in funds to stock up against lean seasons to come. He worried a good deal and kept his savings of nearly six thousand dollars (to the existence of which sum he never by any chance alluded) in five different savings banks. He wore large horn-rimmed eyeglasses (not spectacles) with a heavy black ribbon attached, and took his Art almost as seriously as himself. You know him publicly as Eric Mann.
For six months Peter had been writing words where ideas were imperatively demanded. Lately he had torn up the last of these words. He had waited in vain for the divine uprush; there had come no tingle of delighted nerves, no humming vitality, no punch. And as for his big scene, in Act III, it was a morass of sodden, tangled, dramatic concepts.
His theme this year was the modern bachelor girl; but to save his life he couldn't present her convincingly as a character in a play—perhaps because these advanced, outspoken young women irritated him too deeply to permit of close observation. Really, they frightened him. He believed in marriage, the old-fashioned woman, the home.
It had reached the point, a month back, where he could no longer even react to stimulants. He had revived an old affair with a pretty manicure girl without stirring so much as a flutter of excitement within himself. This was Maria Tonifetti, of the sanitary barber shop of Marius in the basement of the Parisian Restaurant. He had tried getting drunk; which made him ill and induced new depths of melancholy.
No one ever saw his name any more. No one, he felt certain, ever would see it. He could look back now on the few years of his success in a spirit of awful calm. He felt that he had had genius. But the genius had burned out. All that remained to him was to live for a year or two (or three) watching that total of nearly six thousand dollars shrink—-shrink—-and then the end of everything. Well, he would not be the first....
One faint faded joy had lately been left to Peter, one sorry reminder of the days when the magical words, the strangely hypnotic words, "Eric Mann," had spoken, sung, shouted from half the bill-boards in town. Over beyond Sixth Avenue, hardly five minutes' walk through the odd tangle of wandering streets, the tenements and ancient landmarks and subway excavations and little triangular breathing places that make up the Greenwich Village of to-day, there had lingered one faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster, advertising "The Buzzard, by Eric Mann."
When he was bluest lately, Peter had occasionally walked over there and stood for a while gazing at this lingering vestige of his name.
He went over there now, in soft hat and light overcoat, and carrying his heavy cane—hurried over there, in fact—across the Square and on under the Sixth Avenue elevated into that quaint section of the great city which socialists, anarchists, feminists, Freudian psycho-analysts of self, magazine writers, Jewish intellectuals, sculptors and painters of all nationalities and grades, sex hygiene enthusiasts, theatrical press-agents and various sorts of youthful experimenters in living share with the merely poor.
He stopped at a familiar spot on the curb by a familiar battered lamp-post and peered across the street.
Then he started—and stared. Surprise ran into bewilderment, bewilderment into utter dejection.
The faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster had vanished.
A new brand of cut plug tobacco was advertised there now.
Ragged children of the merely poor, cluttering pavement and sidewalk, fell against him in their play. Irritably he brushed them aside.
It was indeed the end.
A young woman was crossing the street toward him, nimbly dodging behind a push cart and in front of a coal truck. Deep in self, he lowered his gaze and watched her. So intent was his stare that the girl stopped short, one foot on the curb, slowly lowered the apple she was eating, and looked straight at him.
She was shaped like a boy, he decided—good shoulders, no hips, fine hands (she wore no gloves, though the March air was crisp) and trim feet in small, fiat-heeled tan boots. Her hair, he thought, was cut short. He was not certain, for her "artistic" tarn o'shanter covered it and hung low on her neck behind. He moved a step to one side and looked more closely. Yes, it was short. Not docked, in the current fashion, but cut close to her head, like a boy's.
She stepped up on the curb now and confronted him. He noted that her suit was of brown stuff, loosely and comfortably cut; and that the boyish outer coat, which she wore swinging open, was of a rough plaid. Then he became aware of her eyes. They were deep green and vivid. Her skin was a clear olive, prettily tinted by air and exercise... Peter suddenly knew that he was turning red.
She spoke first.
"Hadn't we better say something?" was her remark. Then she took another bite of the apple, and munched it with honest relish.
"Very likely we would better," he managed to reply—rather severely, for the "had better" phrase always annoyed him.
"It seems as if I must have met you somewhere," he ventured next.
"No, we haven't met."
"My name is Mann."
"Yes," said she, "I know it."
"Then suppose you tell me yours?"
Peter could not think of a reason why. Deeply as he was supposed to understand women, here was a new variety. She was inclined neither to flirt nor to run away.
"How is it that you know who I am?" he asked, sparring for time..
She gave a careless shrug. "Oh, most every one is known, here in the Village."
Peter was always at his best when recognized as the Eric Mann. His spirits rose a bit.
"Might I suggest that we have a cup of tea somewhere?"
She knit her brows. "Yes," she replied slowly, even doubtfully, "you might."
"Of course, if you—"
"Jim's isn't far. Let's go there."
Jim's was an oyster and chop emporium of ancient fame in the Village. They sat at a rear table. The place was empty save for an old waiter who shuffled through the sprinkling of sawdust on the floor, and a fat grandson of the original Jim who stood by the open grill that was set in the wall at the rear end of the oyster bar.
Over the tea Peter said, expanding now—"Perhaps this is reason enough for you to tell me who you are."
"Perhaps what is?"
He smilingly passed the toast.
She took a slice, and considered it.
"You see," he went on, "if I am not to know, how on earth am I to manage seeing you again?"
She slowly inclined her head. "That's just it."
It was Peter's turn to knit his brow's.
"How can I be sure that I want you to see me again?"
He waved an exasperated hand. "Then why are we here?"
"To find out."
At least he could smoke. He opened his cigarette case. Then, though he never felt right about women smoking, he extended it toward her.
"Thanks," said she, taking one and casually lighting it. Yes, she had fine hands. And he had noted when she took off her coat and reached up to hang it on the wall rack, her youth-like suppleness of body. A provocative person!
"I've seen some of your plays," she observed, elbows on table, chin on hand, gazing at the smoke-wraiths of her cigarette. "Two or three. Odd Change and Anchored and—what was it called?"
"Yes, The Buzzard. They were dreadful."
The color slowly left Peter's face. The girl was speaking without the slightest self-consciousness or wish to offend. She meant it.
Peter managed to recover some part of his poise.
"Well!" he said. Then: "If they were all dreadful, why didn't you stop after the first?"
"Oh."—she waved her cigarette—"Odd Change came to town when I was in college, and—"
"So you're a college girl?"
"Yes, and a crowd of us went. That one wasn't so bad as the others. You know your tricks well enough—especially in comedy, carpentered comedy. Theatrically, I suppose you're really pretty good or your things wouldn't succeed. It is when you try to deal with life—and with women—that you're...." Words failed her. She smoked in silence.
"I'm what?" he ventured. "The limit?"
"Yes," she replied, very thoughtful. "Since you've said it."
"All right," he cried, aiming at a gay humor and missing heavily—"but now, having slapped me in the face and thrown me out in the snow, don't you think that you'd better—" He hesitated, watching for a smile that failed to make its appearance. "That I'd better what?"
"Well—tell me a little more?"
"I was wondering if I could. The difficulty is, it's the whole thing—your attitude toward life—the perfectly conventional, perfectly unimaginative home and mother stuff, your hopeless sentimentality about women, the slushy, horrible, immoral Broadway falseness that lies back of everything you do—the Broadway thing, always. Ever, in your comedy, good as that sometimes is. Your insight into life is just about that of a hardened director of one-reel films. What I've been wondering since we met this afternoon—you see, I didn't know that we were going to meet in this way...
"... is whether it would be any use to try and help you. You have ability enough."
"Thanks for that!"
"Don't let's trifle! You see, if it is any use at all to try to get a little—just a little—truth into the American theater, why, those of us that believe in truth owe it to our faith to get to work on the men that supply the plays."
"Doubtless." Peter's mind was racing in a dozen directions at once. This extraordinary young person had hit close; that much he knew. He wondered rather helplessly whether the shattered and scattered remnants of his self-esteem could ever be put together again so the cracks wouldn't show.
The confusing thing was that he couldn't, at the moment, feel angry toward the girl; she was too odd and too pretty. Already he was conscious of a considerable emotional stir, caused by her mere presence there across the table. She reached out now for another cigarette.
"I think," said he gloomily, "that you'd better tell me your name."
She shook her head. "I'll tell you how you can find me out."
"You would have to take a little trouble."
"Come to the Crossroads Theater to-night, in Tenth Street."
"Oh—-that little place of Zanin's."
She nodded. "That little place of Zanin's."
"I've never been there."
"I know you haven't. None of the people that might be helped by it ever come. You see, we aren't professional, artificialized actors. We are just trying to deal naturally with bits of real life—from the Russian, and things that are written here in the Village. Jacob Zanin is a big man—a fine natural man—with a touch of genius, I think."
Peter was silent. He knew this brilliant, hulking Russian Jew, and disliked him: even feared him in a way, as he feared others of his race with what he felt to be their hard clear minds, their vehement idealism, their insistent pushing upward. The play that had triumphantly displaced his last failure at the Astoria Theater was written by a Russian Jew.
She added: "In some ways it is the only interesting theater in New York."
"There is so much to see."
"I know," she sighed. "And we don't play every night, of course. Only Friday and Saturday."
He was regarding her now with kindling interest. "What do you do there?"
"Oh, nothing much. I'm playing a boy this month in Zanin's one-act piece, Any Street. And sometimes I dance. I was on my way there when I met you—was due at three o'clock."
"For a rehearsal, I suppose."
"You won't make it. It's four-fifteen now."
"I know it."
"You're playing a boy," he mused. "I wonder if that is why you cut off your hair." He felt brutally daring in saying this. He had never been direct with women or with direct women. But this girl created her own atmosphere which quite enveloped him.
"Yes," said she simply, "I had to for the part." Never would he have believed that the attractive woman lived who would do that!
Abruptly, as if acting on an impulse, she pushed back her chair. "I'm going," she remarked; adding; "You'll find you have friends who know me."
She was getting into her coat now. He hurried awkwardly around the table, and helped her.
"Tell me," said he, suddenly all questions, now that he was losing her—"You live here in the Village, I take it?"
She nearly smiled. "No, with another girl."
"Do I know her?"
She pursed her lips. "I doubt it." A moment more of hesitation, then: "Her name is Deane, Betty Deane."
"I've heard that name. Yes, I've seen her—at the Black and White ball this winter! A blonde—pretty—went as a Picabia dancer."
They were mounting the steps to the sidewalk (for Jim's is a basement).
"Good-by," said she. "Will you come—to-night or to-morrow?"
"Yes," said he. "To-night." And walked in a daze back to the rooms on Washington Square.
NOT until he was crossing Sixth Avenue, under the elevated road, did it occur to him that she had deliberately broken her rehearsal appointment to have tea with him and then as deliberately, had left him for the rehearsal. He had interested her; then, all at once, he had ceased to interest her. It was not the first time Peter had had this experience with women, though none of the others had been so frank about it.
Frank, she certainly was!
Resentments rose. Why on earth had he sat there so meekly and let her go on like that—he, the more or less well-known Eric Mann! Had he no force of character at all? No dignity?
Suppose she had to write plays to suit the whims of penny-splitting Broadway managers who had never heard of Andreyev and Tchekov, were bored by Shaw and Shakespeare and thought an optimist was an eye doctor—where would she get off!
During the short block between Sixth Avenue and the Square, anger conquered depression. When he entered the old brick apartment building he was muttering. When he left the elevator and walked along the dark corridor to the rooms he was considering reprisals.
Peter shared the dim old seventh-floor apartment with two fellow bachelors, Henry Sidenham Lowe and the Worm. The three were sometimes known as the Seventh-Story Men. The phrase was Hy Lowe's and referred to the newspaper stories of that absurd kidnaping escapade—the Esther MacLeod case, it was—back in 1913. The three were a bit younger then.
Hy Lowe was a slim young man with small features that appeared to be gathered in the middle of his face. His job might have been thought odd anywhere save in the Greenwich Village region. After some years of newspaper work he had settled down to the managing editorship of a missionary weekly known as My Brother's Keeper. Hy was uncommunicative, even irreverent regarding his means of livelihood, usually referring to the paper as his meal ticket, and to his employer, the Reverend Doctor Hubbell Harkness Wilde (if at all) as the Walrus. In leisure moments, perhaps as a chronic reaction from the moral strain of his job, Hy affected slang, musical comedy and girls. The partly skinned old upright piano in the studio was his. And he had a small gift at juggling plates.
The Worm was a philosopher; about Peter's age, sandy in coloring but mild in nature, reflective to the point of self-effacement. He read interminably, in more than one foreign language and was supposed to write book reviews. He had lived in odd corners of the earth and knew Gorki personally. His name was Henry Bates.
Peter came slowly into the studio, threw off coat and hat and stood, the beginnings of a complacent smile on his face.
"I've got my girl," he announced.
"Now that you've got her, what you gonna do with her?" queried Hy Lowe, without turning from the new song hit he was picking out on the piano.
"What am I gonna do with her?" mused Peter, hands deep in pockets, more and more pleased with his new attitude of mind—"I'm gonna vivisect her, of course."
"Ah, cruel one!" hummed Hy.
"Well, why not!" cried Peter, rousing. "If a girl leaves her home and strikes out for the self-expression thing, doesn't she forfeit the consideration of decent people? Isn't she fair game?"
Over in the corner by a window, his attention caught by this outbreak, the Worm looked up at Peter and reflected for a moment. He was deep in a Morris chair, the Worm, clad only in striped pajamas that were not over-equipped with buttons, and one slipper of Chinese straw that dangled from an elevated foot.
"Hey, Pete—get this!" cried Hy, and burst into song.
Peter leaned over his shoulder and sang the choppy refrain with him. In the interest of accuracy the two sang it again, The third rendition brought them to the borders of harmony.
The Worm looked up again and studied Peter's back, rather absently as if puzzling him out and classifying him. He knit his brows. Then his eyes lighted, and he turned back in his book, fingering the pages with a mild eagerness. Finding what he sought, he read thoughtfully and smiled. He closed his book; hitched forward to the old flat-top desk that stood between the windows; lighted a caked brier pipe; and after considerable scribbling on scraps of paper appeared to hit upon an arrangement of phrases that pleased him. These phrases he printed out painstakingly on the back of a calling card which he tacked up (with a hair-brush) on the outer side of the apartment door. Then he went into the bedroom to dress.
"Who is she?" asked Hy in a low voice. The two were fond of the Worm, but they never talked with him about their girls.
"That's the interesting thing," said Peter. "I don't know. She's plumb mysterious. All she'd tell was that she is playing a boy at that little Crossroads Theater of Zanin's, and that I'd have to go there to find her out. Going to-night. Want to come along?"
"What kind of a looking girl?"
"Oh—pretty. Extraordinary eyes, green with brown in 'em—but green. And built like a boy. Very graceful."
"Hm!" mused Hy.
"Do you know her?"
"Sounds like Sue Wilde."
"Yes, the Walrus's child."
"What's she doing, playing around the Village?"
"Oh, that's an old story. She left home—walked right out. Calls herself modern. She's the original lady highbrow, if you ask me. Sure I'll go to see her. Even if she never could see me."
Later, Hy remarked: "The old boy asked me yesterday if I had her address. You see he knows we live down here where the Village crowds circulate."
"Give it to him?"
"No. Easy enough to get, of course, but I ducked... I'm going to hop into the bathtub. There's time enough. Then we can eat at the Parisian."
Peter settled down to read the sporting page of the evening paper. Shortly the Worm, clad now, drifted back to the Morris chair.
They heard Hy shuffle out in his bath slippers and close the outer door after him. Then he opened the door and came back, He stood in the doorway, holding his bathrobe together with one hand and swinging his towel with the ether; and chuckling.
"You worm!" he observed. "Why Bolbo ceeras?"
The Worm looked up with mild eyes. "Not bolboceeras," he corrected.
"Bolboeseras. As in cow."
The Worm merely shrugged his shoulders and resumed his book.
Peter paid little heed to this brief conversation. And when he and Hy went out, half an hour later, he gave only a passing glance to the card on the door. He was occupied with thoughts of a slim girl with green eyes who had fascinated and angered him in a most confusing way.
The card read as follows:
DO NOT FEED OR ANNOY!
BOLBOCERAS AMERICANUS MULS
THE Crossroads Theater was nothing more than an old store, with a shallow stage built in at the rear and a rough foyer boarded off at the front. The seats were rows of undertaker's chairs, but the lighting was managed with some skill; and the scenery, built and painted in the neighborhood, bordered on a Barker-Craig-Reinhardt effectiveness.
Peter and Hy stood for a little time in the foyer, watching the audience come in. It was a distinctly youthful audience—the girls and women were attractive, most of them Americans; the men running more foreign, with a good many Russian Jews among them. They all appeared to be great friends. And they handled one another a good deal. Peter, self-conscious, hunting copy as always, saw one tired-looking young Jewish painter catch the hand of a pretty girl—an extraordinarily pretty girl, blonde, of a slimly rounded figure—and press and caress her fingers as he chatted casually with a group.
After a moment the girl drew her hand away gently, half-apologetically, while a faint wave of color flowed to her transparent cheek.
All Peter's blind race prejudice flamed into a little fire of rage. Here it was—his subject—the restless American girl experimenting with life, the selfish bachelor girl, deep in the tangles of Bohemia, surrounded by just the experimental men that would be drawn to the district by such as she....
So Peter read it. And he was tom by confused clashing emotions. Then he heard a fresh voice cry: "Why, hello, Betty!" Then he remembered—this girl was the Picabia dancer—Betty Deane—her friend! There was color in his own face now, and his pulse was leaping.
"Come," he said shortly to Hy, "let's find our seats."
The first playlet on the bill was Zanin's Any Street.
The theme was the grim influence of street life on the mind of a child. It was an uncomfortable little play. All curtains were drawn back. Subjects were mentioned that should never, Peter felt, be even hinted at in the presence of young women. Rough direct words were hurled at that audience.
Peter, blushing, peered about him. There sat the young women and girls by the dozen, serene of face, frankly interested.
Poor Hy, overcome by his tangled self-consciousness, actually lowered his head and pressed his handkerchief to his fiery face, murmuring: "This is no place for a minister's assistant!" And he added, in Peter's ear: "Lord, if the Walrus could just see this—once!"
Then a newsboy came running on the stage—slim, light of foot—dodged cowering in a saloon doorway, and swore at an off-stage policeman from whose clutches he had escaped.
There was a swift pattering of applause; and a whisper ran through the audience. Peter heard one voice say: "There she is—that's Sue!"
He sat erect, on the edge of his chair. Again the hot color surged into his face. He felt it there and was confused.
It was his girl of the apple, in old coat and knickerbockers, tom stockings, torn shirt open at the neck, a ragged felt hat over her short hair.
Peter felt his resentment fading. He knew as he watched her move about the stage that she had the curious electric quality that is called personality. It was in her face and the poise of her head, in the lines of her body, in every easy movement. She had a great gift..
After this play the two went outside to smoke, very silent, suppressed even. Neither knew what to think or what to say.
There Zanin found them (for Peter was, after all, a bit of a personage) and made them his guests.
Thus it was that Peter found himself behind the scenes, meeting the youthful, preoccupied members of the company and watching with half-suppressed eagerness the narrow stairway by which Sue Wilde must sooner or later mount from the region of dressing-rooms below.
Finally, just before the curtain was rung up on the second play, he was rewarded by the appearance of Betty Deane, followed by the tam o'shanter and the plaid coat of his apple girl.
He wondered if her heart was jumping as his was.
Surely the electric thrill of this meeting, here among heaps of scenery and properties, must have touched her, too. He could not believe that it began and ended with himself. There was magic in the occasion, such magic as an individual rarely generates alone. But if it touched her, she gave no outward sign. To Zanin's casual, "Oh, you know each other," she responded with a quite matter-of-fact smile and nod.
They went out into the audience, and up an aisle to seats in the rear of the hall—Betty first, then Sue and Peter, then Hy.
Peter felt the thrill again in walking just behind her, aware through his very nerve-rips of her grace and charm of movement. When he stood aside to let her pass on to her seat her sleeve brushed his arm; and the arm, his body, his brain, tingled and flamed.
Zanin joined them after the last play and led them to a basement restaurant near the Square. Hy paired off with Betty and made progress. But then, Betty was evidently more Hy's sort than Sue was.
In the restaurant, Peter, silent, gloomy, watched his chance for a word aside with Sue. When it came, he said: "I'm very glad you told me to come."
"You liked it then?"
"I liked you."
This appeared to silence her.
"You have distinction your performance was really interesting."
"I'm glad you think that."
"In some ways you are the most gifted girl I have ever seen. Listen! I must see you again."
"Let's have a bite together one of these evenings—at the Parisian or Jim's. I want to talk with you."
"That would be pleasant," said she, after a moment's hesitation.
"To-morrow evening, perhaps?" Peter suggested.
The question was not answered; for in some way the talk became general just then. Later Peter was sure that Sue herself had a hand in making it general.
Zanin turned suddenly to Peter. He was a big young man, with a strong if peasant-like face and a look of keenness about the eyes. There was exuberant force in the man, over which his Village manner of sophisticated casualness toward all things lay like the thinnest of veneers.
"Well," he said, "what do you think of Sue here?"
Peter repeated his impressions with enthusiasm.
"We're going to do big things with her," said Zanin. "Big things. You wait. Any Street is just a beginning." And then an impetuous eagerness rushing up in him, his topic shifted from Sue to himself. With a turbulent, passionate egotism he recounted his early difficulties in America, his struggles with the language, heart-breaking summers as a book agent, newspaper jobs in middle-western cities, theatrical press work from Coast to Coast, his plunge into the battle for a higher standard of theatrical art and the resulting fight, most desperate of his life thus far, to attract attention to the Crossroads Theater and widen its influence.
Zarin was vehement now. Words poured in a torrent from his lips. He talked straight at you, gesturing, with a light in his eye and veiled power in his slightly husky voice. Peter felt this power, and something not unlike a hatred of the man took sudden root within him.
"You will think me foolish to give my strength to this struggle. Like you, I know these Americans. You can tell me nothing about them. Oh, I have seen them, lived with them—in the city, in the small village, on the farm. I know that they are ignorant of Art, that they do not care." He snapped his big fingers. "Vaudeville, baseball, the girl show, the comic supplement, the moving picture—that is what they like! Yet year after year, I go on fighting for the barest recognition. They do not understand. They do not care. They believe in money, comfort, conformity—above all conformity. They are fools. But I know them, I tell you! And I know that they will listen to me yet! I have shown them that I can fight for my ideals. Before we are through I shall show them that I can beat them at their own game. They shall see that I mean business. I shall show them their God Success in his full majesty.... And publicity? They are children. When I have finished they—-the best of them—-will come to me for kindergarten lessons in publicity. I'm hoping to talk with you about it, Mann, I can interest you. I wouldn't bring it to you unless I knew I could interest you."
He turned toward Sue. "And this girl shall help me. She has the talent, the courage, the breeding. She will surprise the best of them. They will find her pure gold."
Hushed with his own enthusiasm, he dropped his hand over one of Sue's; took hers up in both of his and moved her slender fingers about as he might have played absently with a handkerchief or a curtain string.
Hy, across the table, took this in; and noted too the swift, hot expression that flitted across Peter's face and the sudden set to his mouth.
Sue, alter a moment, quietly withdrew her hand. But she did not flush, as Betty had flushed in somewhat similar circumstances a few hours earlier.
Peter laid his hands on the table; pushed back his chair; and, lips compressed, got up.
"Oh," cried Zanin—"not going?"
"I must," Peter replied, slowly, coldly. "I have work to do. It has been very pleasant. Good night."
And out he went.
Hy, after some hesitation, followed.
Peter did not speak until they were nearly across the Square. Then he remembered—
"The Walrus asked you where she was, did he?"
"He sure did."
"Worried about her, I suppose!"
"He's worried, all right."
"Humph!" said Peter.
He said nothing more. At the rooms, He partly undressed in silence. Now and again his long face worked in mute expression of conflicting emotions within. Suddenly he stopped undressing and went into the studio (he slept in there, on the couch) and sat by the window, peering out at the sights of the Square.
Hy watched him curiously; then called out a good night, turned off the gas and tumbled into bed. His final remark, the cheery observation—"I'll tell you this much, my son. Friend Betty is some pippin!" drew forth no response.
HALF an hour later Peter tiptoed over and closed the door. Then he sat down at his typewriter, removed the paper he had left in it, put in a new sheet and struck off a word.
He sat still, then, in a sweat. The noise of the keys fell on his tense ears like the crackling thunder of a machine gun.
He took the paper out and tore it into minute pieces.
He got another sheet, sat down at the desk and wrote a few hurried sentences in longhand.
He sealed it in an envelope, glancing nervously about the room; addressed it; and found a stamp in the desk.
Then he tiptoed down the room, softly opened the door and listened.
Hy was snoring.
He stole into the bedroom, found his clothes in the dark and deliberately dressed, clear to overcoat and hat. He slipped out into the corridor, rang for the elevator and went out across the Square to the mail box. There was a box in the hall down-stairs; but he had found it impossible to post that letter before the eyes of John, the night man.
For a moment he stood motionless, one hand gripping the box, the other holding the letter in air—a statue of a man.
Then he saw a sauntering policeman, shivered, dropped the letter in and almost ran home.
Peter had done the one thing that he himself, twelve hours earlier, would have regarded as utterly impossible.
He had sent an anonymous letter.
It was addressed to the Reverend Hubbell Harkness
Wilde, Scripture House, New York. It conveyed to that vigorous if pietistic gentleman the information that he would find his daughter, on the following evening, Saturday, performing on the stage of the Crossroads Theater, Tenth Street, near Fourth: with the added hint that it might not, even yet be too late to save her.
And Peter, all in a tremor now, knew that he meant to be at the Crossroads Theater himself to see this little drama of surprises come off.
The fact developed when Hy came back from the office on Saturday that he was meditating a return engagement with his new friend Betty. "The subject was mentioned," he explained, rather self-consciously, to Peter.
The Worm came in then and heard Hy speak of Any Street.
"Oh," he observed, "that piece of Zanin's! I've meant to see it. You fellows going to-night? I'll join you."
So the three Seventh-Story Men ate at the Parisian and set forth for their little adventure; Peter and Hy each with his own set of motives locked up in his breast, the Worm with no motives in particular.
Peter smoked a cigar; the Worm his pipe; and Hy, as always, a cigarette. All carried sticks.
Peter walked in the middle; his face rather drawn; peeking out ahead.
Hy swung his stick; joked about this and that; offered an experimentally humorous eye to every young woman that passed.
The Worm wore the old gray suit that he could not remember to keep pressed, soft black hat, flowing tie, no overcoat. A side pocket bulged with a paper-covered book in the Russian tongue. He had an odd way of walking, the Worm, throwing his right leg out and around and toeing in with his right foot.
As they neared the little theater, Peter's pulse beat a tattoo against his temples. What if old Wilde hadn't received the letter! If he had, would he come! If he came, what would happen?
Peter and the Worm were standing near the inner entrance, waiting for Hy, who, cigarette drooping from his nether lip, stood in the me at the ticket window.
Suddenly a man appeared—a stranger, from the casually curious glances he drew—elbowing in through the group in the outer doorway and made straight for the young poet who was taking tickets.
Peter did not see him at first. Then the Worm nudged his elbow and whispered—"Good God, it's the Walrus!"
Peter wheeled about. He had met the man only once or twice, a year back; now he took him in—a big man, heavy in the shoulders and neck, past middle age, with a wide thin orator's mouth surrounded by deep lines. He had a big hooked nose (a strong nose!) and striking vivid eyes of a pale green color. They struck you, those eyes, with their light hard surface. There were strips of whiskers on each cheek, narrow and close-clipped, tinged with gray. His clothes, overcoat and hat were black; his collar a low turnover; his tie a loosely knotted white bow.
He made an oddly dramatic figure in that easy, merry Bohemian setting; a specter from an old forgotten world of Puritanism.
The intruder addressed the young poet at the door in a low but determined voice.
"I wish to see Miss Susan Wilde."
"I'm afraid you can't now, sir. She will be in costume by this time."
"In costume, eh?" Doctor Wilde was frowning. And the poet eyed him with cool suspicion.
"Yes, she is in the first play."
Still the big man frowned and compressed that wide mobile mouth. Peter, all alert., sniffing out the copy trail, noted that he was nervously clasping his hands.
Now Doctor Wilde spoke, with a sudden ring in his voice that gave a fleeting hint of inner suppressions. "Will you kindly send word to Miss Wilde that her father is here and must see her at once?"
The poet, surprised, sent the message.
Peter heard a door open, down by the stage. He pressed forward, peering eagerly. A ripple of curiosity and friendly interest ran through that part of the audience that was already seated. A young man called, "What's your hurry, Sue?" and there was laughter.
Then he saw her, coming lightly, swiftly up the side aisle; in the boy costume—the knickerbockers, the torn stockings, the old coat and ragged hat, the tom shirt, open at the neck. She seemed hardly to hear the noise. Her lips were compressed, and Peter suddenly saw that she in her fresh young way looked not unlike the big man at the door, the nervously intent man who stood waiting for her with a scowl that wavered into an expression of utter unbelief as his eyes took in her costume.
Hy came up just then with the tickets, and Peter hurried in after Doctor Wilde; then let Hy and the Worm move on without him to their seats, lingering shamelessly. His little drama was on. He had announced that he would vivisect this girl!
He studied her. But she saw nothing but the big gray man there with the deeply lined face and the pale eyes—her father! Peter noted now that she had her make-up on; an odd effect around those deep blazing eyes.
Then the two were talking—low, tense. Some late comers crowded in, chatting and laughing. Peter edged closer.
"But you shouldn't have come here like this," he heard her saying. "It isn't fair!"
"I am not here to argue. Once more, will you put on your proper clothes and come home with me?"
"No, I will not."
"You have no shame then—appearing like this?"
"And the publicity means nothing to you?"
"You are causing it by coming here."
"It is nothing to you that your actions are a public scandal?" With which he handed her a folded paper.
She did not look at it; crumpled in in her hand.
"You feel, then, no concern for the position you put me in?"
Doctor Wilde was raising his voice.
The girl broke out with—"Listen, father! I came out here to meet you and stop this thing, settle it, once and for all. It is the best way. I will not go with you. I have my own life to live, You must not try to speak to me again!"
She turned away, her eyes darkly alight in her printed face, her slim body quivering.
Wilde's voice had been trembling with anger; now, Peter thought, it was suddenly near to breaking. He reached out one uncertain hand. And a wave of sympathy for the man flooded Peter's thoughts. "This is where their 'freedom,' their 'self-expression' leads them," he thought bitterly. Egotism! Selfishness! Spiritual anarchy! It was all summed up, that revolt, in the girl's outrageous costume as she stood there before that older man, a minister, her own father!
She caught the new note in her father's voice, hesitated the merest instant, but then went straight down the aisle, lips tight, eyes aflame, seeing and hearing nothing.
The stage door opened. She ran up the steps, and Peter caught a glimpse of the hulking Zanin reaching out with a familiar hand to take her arm and draw her within.... He turned back in time to see Doctor Wilde, beaten, walking rapidly out to the street, and the poet at the door looking after him with an expression of sheer uncomprehending irritation on his keen young face. "There you have it again!" thought Peter. "There you have the bachelor girl—and her friends!"
While he was thus indulging his emotions, the curtain went up on Zanin's little play.
He stood there near the door, trying to listen. He was too excited to sit down. Turbulent emotions were rioting within him, making consecutive thought impossible. He caught bits of Zanin's rough dialogue. He saw Sue make her entrance, heard the shout of delighted approval that greeted her, the prolonged applause, the cries of "Bully for you, Sue!"... "You're all right, Sue!"
Then Peter plunged out the door and walked feverishly about the Village streets. He stopped at a saloon and had a drink.
But the Crossroads Theater fascinated him. He drifted back there and looked in. The first play was over. Hy was in a dim corner of the lobby, talking confidentially with Betty Deane.
Then Sue came out with the Worm, of all persons, at her elbow. So he had managed to meet her, too? She wore her street dress and looked amazingly calm.
Peter dodged around the corner. "The way to get on with women," he reflected savagely, "is to have no feelings, no capacity for emotion, be perfectly cold blooded!"
He walked up to Fourteenth Street and dropped aimlessly into a moving-picture show.
Toward eleven he went back to Tenth Street. He even ran a little, breathlessly, for fear he might be too late, too late for what, he did not know.
But he was not. Glancing in at the door, he saw Sue, with Betty, Hy, the Worm, Zanin and a few others.
Hurriedly, on an impulse, he found an envelope in his pocket, tore off the back, and scribbled, in pencil—
"May I walk back with you? I want vary much to talk with you. If you could slip away from these people."
He went in then, grave and dignified, bowing rather stiffly. Sue appeared not to see him.
He moved to her side and spoke low. She did not reply.
The blood came rushing to Peter's face. Anger stirred. He slipped the folded envelope into her hand. It was some satisfaction that she had either to take it or let them all see it drop. She took it; but still ignored him. Her intent to snub him was clear now, even to the bewildered Peter.
He mumbled something, he did not know what, and rushed away as erratically as he had come. What had he wanted to say to her, anyway!
At the corner he turned and came part way back, slowly and uncertainly. But what he saw checked him. The Worm was talking apart with her now. And she was looking up into his face with an expression of pleased interest, frankly smiling. While Peter watched, the two moved off along the street.
Peter walked the streets, in a fever of spirit. One o'clock found him out on the high curve of the Williamsburg bridge where he could lean on the railing and look down on the river with its colored splashes of light or up and across at the myriad twinkling towers of the great city.
"I'll use her!" he muttered. "She is fair game, I tell you! She will find yet that she must listen to me!" And turning about on the deserted bridge, Peter clenched his fist and shook it at the great still city on the island.
"You will all listen to me yet!" he cried aloud. "Yes, you will—you'll listen!"
HE walked rapidly back to the rooms. For his bachelor girl play was swiftly, like magic, working itself out all new in his mind, actually taking form from moment to moment, arranging and rearranging itself nearer and nearer to a complete dramatic story. The big scene was fairly tumbling into form. He saw it as clearly as if it were being enacted before his eyes.... Father and daughter—the two generations; the solid Old, the experimental selfish New.
He could see that typical bachelor girl, too. If she looked like Sue Wilde that didn't matter. He would teach her a lesson she would never forget—this "modern" girl who forgets all her parents have done in giving and developing her life and thinks only of her own selfish freedom. It should be like an outcry from the old hearthstone.
And he saw the picture as only a nerve-racked, soul-weary bachelor can see it. There were pleasant lawns in Peter's ideal home and crackling fireplaces and merry children and smiling perfect parents—no problems, excepting that one of the unfilial child.
Boys had to strike out, of course. But the girl should either marry or stay at home. He was certain about this.
On those who did neither—on the bachelor girls, with their "freedom," their "truth," their cigarettes, their repudiation of all responsibility—on these he would pour the scorn of his genius. Sue Wilde, who so plainly thought him uninteresting, should be his target.
He would write straight at her, every minute, and a world should hear him!
In the dark corridor, on the apartment door, a dim square of white caught his eye—the Worm's little placard. An inner voice whispered to light a match and read it again. He did so. For he was all inner voices now.
There it was:
DO NOT FEED OR ANNOY
BOLBOCERAS AMERICANUS MULS
He studied it while his match burned out. He knit his brows, puzzled, groping after blind thoughts, little moles of thoughts deep in dark burrows.
He let himself in. The others were asleep.
The Worm, in his odd humors, never lacked point or meaning. The placard meant something, of course... something that Peter could use....
The Worm had been reading—that rather fat book lying even now on the arm of the Morris 'chair It was Fabre, on Insect Life.
He snatched it up and turned the pages. He sought the index for that word. There it was—Bolbuceras, page 225. Back then to page 225!
"... a pretty little black beetle, with a pale, velvety abdomen... Its official title is Bulbuceras Gallicus Muls."
He looked up, in perplexity. This was hardly self-explanatory. He read on. The bolboceras, it began to appear, was a hunter of truffles. Truffles it would, must have. It would eat no common food but wandered about sniffing out its vegetable prey in the sandy soil and digging for each separate morsel, then moving on in its quest. It made no permanent home for itself.
Peter raised his eyes and stared at the bookcase in the corner. Very slowly a light crept into his eyes, an excited smile came to the corners of his mouth. There was matter here! And Peter, like Homer, felt no hesitation about taking his own where he found it.
He read on, a description of the burrows as explored by the hand of the scientist:
"Often the insect will be found at the bottom of its burrow; sometimes a male, sometimes a female, but always alone. The two sexes work apart without collaboration. This is no family mansion for the rearing of offspring; it is a temporary dwelling, made by each insect for its own benefit."
Peter laid the book down almost reverently and stood gazing out the window at the Square. He quite forgot to consider what the Worm had been thinking of when he printed out the little placard and tacked it on the door. He could see it only as a perfect characterization of the bachelor girls. Every one of those girls and women was a Bolboceras, a confirmed seeker of pleasures and delicacies in the sober game of life, utterly self-indulgent, going it alone—a truffle hunter.
He would call his play, The Bolboceras.
But no. "Buyers from Shreveport would fumble it," he thought, shrewdly practical. "You've got to use words of one syllable on Broadway."
He paced the room—back and forth, back and forth. The Truffle-Hunter, perhaps.
Pretty good, that!
But no—wait! He stood motionless in the middle of the long room, eyes staring, the muscles of his face strained out of shape, hands clenched tightly..He was about to create a new thing.
The words burst from his lips; so loud that he tiptoed to the door and listened.
"The Truffler," he repeated. "The Trifler—no The Truffler."
He was riding high, far above all worldly irritations, tolerant even toward the little person, Sue Wilde, who had momentarily annoyed him.
"I had to be stirred," he thought, "that was all. Something had to happen to rouse me and set my creative self working. New people had to come into my life to freshen me. It did happen; they did come, and now I an myself again. I shall not have time for them now, these selfish bachelor women and there self-styled Jew geniuses. But still I am grateful to them all. They have helped me."
He dropped into the chair by the desk, pulled out his manuscript from a drawer and fell to work. It was five in the morning before he crept into bed.
Four days later, his eyes sunken perceptibly, face drawn, color off, Peter sat for two hours within a cramped disorderly office, reading aloud to a Broadway theatrical manager who wore his hat tipped down over his eyes, kept his feet on the mahogany desk, smoked panatelas end on end and who, like Peter, was deeply conservative where women were concerned.
At five-thirty on this same afternoon, Peter, triumphant, acting on a wholly unconsidered impulse, rushed around the corner of Broadway and Forty-second Street and into the telephone room of a glittering hotel. He found Betty Deane's name in the telephone book, and called up the apartment.
A feminine voice sounded in his ear. He thought it was Sue Wilde.
It was Sue Wilde.
He asked if she could not dine with him.
There was a long silence at the other end of the wire.
"Are you there?" he called anxiously. "Hello! Hello!"
"Yes, I'm here," came the voice. "You rather surprised me, Mr. Mann. I have an engagement for this evening."
"Oh, then I can't see you!"
"I have an engagement."
He tried desperately to think up conversation; but failed.
"Well," he said—"good-by."
That was all. Peter ate alone, still overstrung but gloomy now, in the glittering hotel.
The dinner, however, was both well-cooked and hot. It tended to soothe and soften him. Finally, expansive again, he leaned hack, fingered his coffee cup, smoked a twenty-cent cigar and observed the life about him.
There, were many large dressy women, escorted by sharp-looking men of two races. There were also small dressy women, some mere girls and pretty, but nearly all wearing make-up on cheeks and lips and quite all with extreme, sophistication in their eyes. There was shining silver and much white linen. Chafing dishes blazed. French and Austrian waiters moved swiftly about under the commanding eye of a stern captain. Uniformed but pocketless hat boys slipped it and out, pouncing on every loose article of apparel.... It was a gay scene; and Peter found himself in it, of it, for it. With rising exultation in his heart he reflected that he was back on Broadway, where (after all) he belonged.
His manager of the afternoon came in now, who believed, with Peter, that woman's place was the home. He was in evening dress—a fat man. At his side tripped a very young-appearing girl indeed—the youngest and prettiest in the room, but with the make-up and sophistication of the others. Men (and women) stared at them as they passed. There was whispering; for this was the successful Max Neuerman, and the girl was the lucky Eileen O'Rourke.
Neuerrman sighted Peter, greeted him boisterously, himself drew up an unoccupied chair. Peter was made acquainted with Miss O'Rourke. "This is the man, Eileen," said Neuerman, breathing confidences, "Wrote The Trufiler. Big thing! Absolutely a new note on Broadway! Eric here has caught the new bachelor woman, shown her up and put a tag on her. After this she'll be called a truffler everywhere.... By the way, Eric, I sent the contract down to you to-night by messenger. And the check."
Miss Eileen O'Rourke smiled indulgently and a thought absently. While Peter lighted, thanks to Neuermnn, a thirty-cent cigar and impulsively told Miss O'Rourke (who continued to smile indulgently and absently) just how he had come to hit on that remarkable tag.
It was nearly nine o'clock when he left and walked, very erect, from the restaurant, conscious of a hundred eyes on his back. He gave the hat boy a quarter.
Out on Forty-second Street he paused to clear his exuberant but confused mind. He couldn't go back to the rooms; not as he felt now. Cabarets bored him. It was too early for dancing. Irresolute, he strolled over toward Fifth Avenue, crossed it, turned south. A north-bound automobile bus stopped just ahead of him. He glanced up at the roof. There appeared to be a vacant seat or two. In front was the illuminated sign that meant Riverside Drive. It was warm for February.
He decided to take the ride.
Just in front of him, however, also moving toward the bus, was a young couple. There was something familiar about them. The girl—he could see by a corner light—was wearing a boyish coat, a plaid coat. Also she wore a tam o'shanter. She partly turned her head... his pulse started racing, and he felt the colour rushing into his face. It was Sue Wilde, no other!
But the man? No overcoat. That soft black hat! A glimpse of a flowing tie of black silk! The odd trick of throwing his right leg out and around as he walked and toeing in with the right foot!
It was the Worm.
Peter turned sharply away, crossed the street and caught a south-bound bus. Wavering between irritation, elation and chagrin, he walked in and out among the twisted old streets of Greenwich Village. Four distinct times—and for no clear reason—he passed the dingy apartment building where Sue and Betty lived.
Later he found himself standing motionless on a curb by a battered lamp-post, peering through his large horn-rimmed eye-glasses at a bill-board across the street on which his name did not appear. He studied the twenty-four-sheet poster of a cut plug tobacco that now occupied the space. There was light enough in the street to read it by.
Suddenly he turned and looked to the right. Then he looked to the left. Fumbling for a pencil, he moved swiftly and resolutely across the street. Very small, down in the right-hand corner of the tobacco advertisement, he wrote his name—his pen name—"Eric Mann."
Then, more nearly at peace with himself, he went to the moving pictures.
Entering the rooms later, he found the Worm settled, in pajamas as usual, with a book in the Morris chair. He also found a big envelope from Neuerman with the contract in it and a check for a thousand dollars, advanced against royalties.
It was a brown check. He fingered it for a moment, while his spirits recorded their highest mark for the day. Then, outwardly calm, he put it in an inside coat pocket and with a fine air of carelessness tossed the contract to the desk.
The Worm put down his book and studied Peter rather thoughtfully.
"Pete," he finally said, "I've got a message for you, and I've been sitting here debating whether to deliver it or not."
"Let's have it!" replied the Eric Mann shortly.
The Worm produced a folded envelope from the pocket of his pajamas and handed it ever. "I haven't been told what's in it," he said.
Peter, with a tremor, unfolded the envelope and peered inside. There were two enclosures—one plainly his scribbled note to Sue; the other (he had to draw it partly out and examine it)—yes—no—yes, his anonymous letter, much crumpled.
Deliberately, rather white about the mouth, Peter moved to the fireplace, touched a match to the papers and watched them burn. That done, he turned and queried:
"Well? That all?"
The Worm shook his head. "Not quite all, Pete."
Words suddenly came from Peter. "What do I care for that girl! A creative artist has his reactions, of course. He even does foolish things. Look at Wagner, Burns, Cellini, Michael Angelo—look at the things they used to do!..."
The words stopped.
"Her message is," continued the Worm, "the suggestion that next time you write one of them with your left hand."
Peter thought this over. The check glowed next to his heart. It thrilled him. "You tell your friend Sue Wilde," he replied then, with dignity, "that my message to her—and to you—will be delivered next September across the footlights of the Astoria Theater." And he strode into the bedroom.
The Worm looked after him with quizzical eyes, smiled a little and resumed his book.
PETER came stealthily into the rooms on the seventh floor of the old bachelor apartment building in Washington Square. His right hand, deep in a pocket of his spring overcoat, clutched a thin, very new book bound in pasteboard. It was late on a Friday afternoon, near the lamb-like close of March.
The rooms were empty. Which fact brought relief to Peter.
He crossed the studio to the decrepit flat-top desk between the two windows. With an expression of gravity, almost of solemnity, on his long face, lie unlocked the middle drawer on the end next the wail. Within, on a heap of manuscripts, letters and contracts, lay five other thin little books in gray, buff and pink. He spread these in a row on the desk and added the new one. On each was the name of a savings bank, printed, and his own name, written. They represented savings aggregating now nearly seven thousand dollars.
They represented savings aggregating now nearly seven thousand dollars
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