Cheerful, By Request by Edna Ferber
Story type: Literature
The editor paid for the lunch (as editors do). He lighted his seventh cigarette and leaned back. The conversation, which had zigzagged from the war to Zuloaga, and from Rasputin the Monk to the number of miles a Darrow would go on a gallon, narrowed down to the thin, straight line of business.
“Now don’t misunderstand. Please! We’re not presuming to dictate. Dear me, no! We have always felt that the writer should be free to express that which is in his–ah–heart. But in the last year we’ve been swamped with these drab, realistic stories. Strong, relentless things, you know, about dishwashers, with a lot of fine detail about the fuzz of grease on the rim of the pan. And then those drear and hopeless ones about fallen sisters who end it all in the East River. The East River must be choked up with ’em. Now, I know that life is real, life is earnest, and I’m not demanding a happy ending, exactly. But if you could–that is–would you–do you see your way at all clear to giving us a fairly cheerful story? Not necessarily Glad, but not so darned Russian, if you get me. Not pink, but not all grey either. Say–mauve.” …
That was Josie Fifer’s existence. Mostly grey, with a dash of pink. Which makes mauve.
Unless you are connected (which you probably are not) with the great firm of Hahn & Lohman, theatrical producers, you never will have heard of Josie Fifer.
There are things about the theatre that the public does not know. A statement, at first blush, to be disputed. The press agent, the special writer, the critic, the magazines, the Sunday supplement, the divorce courts–what have they left untold? We know the make of car Miss Billboard drives; who her husbands are and were; how much the movies have offered her; what she wears, reads, says, thinks, and eats for breakfast. Snapshots of author writing play at place on Hudson; pictures of the play in rehearsal; of the director directing it; of the stage hands rewriting it–long before the opening night we know more about the piece than does the playwright himself, and are ten times less eager to see it.
Josie Fifer’s knowledge surpassed even this. For she was keeper of the ghosts of the firm of Hahn & Lohman. Not only was she present at the birth of a play; she officiated at its funeral. She carried the keys to the closets that housed the skeletons of the firm. When a play died of inanition, old age, or–as was sometimes the case–before it was born, it was Josie Fifer who laid out its remains and followed it to the grave.
Her notification of its demise would come thus:
“Hello, Fifer! This is McCabe” (the property man of H. & L. at the phone).
“A little waspish this morning, aren’t you, Josephine?”
“I’ve got twenty-five bathing suits for the No. 2 ‘Ataboy’ company to mend and clean and press before five this afternoon. If you think I’m going to stand here wasting my–“
“All right, all right! I just wanted to tell you that ‘My Mistake’ closes Saturday. The stuff’ll be up Monday morning early.”
A sardonic laugh from Josie. “And yet they say ‘What’s in a name!’”
The unfortunate play had been all that its title implies. Its purpose was to star an actress who hadn’t a glint. Her second-act costume alone had cost $700, but even Russian sable bands can’t carry a bad play. The critics had pounced on it with the savagery of their kind and hacked it, limb from limb, leaving its carcass to rot under the pitiless white glare of Broadway. The dress with the Russian sable bands went the way of all Hahn & Lohman tragedies. Josie Fifer received it, if not reverently, still appreciatively.
“I should think Sid Hahn would know by this time,” she observed sniffily, as her expert fingers shook out the silken folds and smoothed the fabulous fur, “that auburn hair and a gurgle and a Lucille dress don’t make a play. Besides, Fritzi Kirke wears the biggest shoe of any actress I ever saw. A woman with feet like that”–she picked up a satin slipper, size 7-1/2 C–“hasn’t any business on the stage. She ought to travel with a circus. Here, Etta. Hang this away in D, next to the amethyst blue velvet, and be sure and lock the door.”
McCabe had been right. A waspish wit was Josie’s.
The question is whether to reveal to you now where it was that Josie Fifer reigned thus, queen of the cast-offs; or to take you back to the days that led up to her being there–the days when she was Jose Fyfer on the programme.
Her domain was the storage warehouse of Hahn & Lohman, as you may have guessed. If your business lay Forty-third Street way, you might have passed the building a hundred times without once giving it a seeing glance. It was not Forty-third Street of the small shops, the smart crowds, and the glittering motors. It was the Forty-third lying east of the Grand Central sluice gates; east of fashion; east, in a word, of Fifth Avenue–a great square brick building smoke-grimed, cobwebbed, and having the look of a cold-storage plant or a car barn fallen into disuse; dusty, neglected, almost eerie. Yet within it lurks Romance, and her sombre sister Tragedy, and their antic brother Comedy, the cut-up.
A worn flight of wooden steps leads up from the sidewalk to the dim hallway; a musty-smelling passage wherein you are met by a genial sign which reads:
“No admittance. Keep out. This means you.”
To confirm this, the eye, penetrating the gloom, is confronted by a great blank metal door that sheathes the elevator. To ride in that elevator is to know adventure, so painfully, so protestingly, with such creaks and jerks and lurchings does it pull itself from floor to floor, like an octogenarian who, grunting and groaning, hoists himself from his easy-chair by slow stages that wring a protest from ankle, knee, hip, back and shoulder. The corkscrew stairway, broken and footworn though it is, seems infinitely less perilous.
First floor–second–third–fourth. Whew! And there you are in Josie Fifer’s kingdom–a great front room, unexpectedly bright and even cosy with its whir of sewing machines: tables, and tables, and tables, piled with orderly stacks of every sort of clothing, from shoes to hats, from gloves to parasols; and in the room beyond this, and beyond that, and again beyond that, row after row of high wooden cabinets stretching the width of the room, and forming innumerable aisles. All of Bluebeard’s wives could have been tucked away in one corner of the remotest and least of these, and no one the wiser. All grimly shut and locked, they are, with the key in Josie’s pocket. But when, at the behest of McCabe, or sometimes even Sid Hahn himself, she unlocked and opened one of these doors, what treasures hung revealed! What shimmer and sparkle and perfume–and moth balls! The long-tailed electric light bulb held high in one hand, Josie would stand at the door like a priestess before her altar.
There they swung, the ghosts and the skeletons, side by side. You remember that slinking black satin snakelike sheath that Gita Morini wore in “Little Eyolf”? There it dangles, limp, invertebrate, yet how eloquent! No other woman in the world could have worn that gown, with its unbroken line from throat to hem, its smooth, high, black satin collar, its writhing tail that went slip-slip-slipping after her. In it she had looked like a sleek and wicked python that had fasted for a long, long time.
Dresses there are that have made stage history. Surely you remember the beruffled, rose-strewn confection in which the beautiful Elsa Marriott swam into our ken in “Mississipp’”? She used to say, wistfully, that she always got a hand on her entrance in that dress. It was due to the sheer shock of delight that thrilled audience after audience as it beheld her loveliness enhanced by this floating, diaphanous tulle cloud. There it hangs, time-yellowed, its pristine freshness vanished quite, yet as fragrant with romance as is the sere and withered blossom of a dead white rose pressed within the leaves of a book of love poems. Just next it, incongruously enough, flaunt the wicked froufrou skirts and the low-cut bodice and the wasp waist of the abbreviated costume in which Cora Kassell used so generously to display her charms. A rich and portly society matron of Pittsburgh now–she whose name had been a synonym for pulchritude these thirty years; she who had had more cold creams, hats, cigars, corsets, horses, and lotions named for her than any woman in history! Her ample girth would have wrought sad havoc with that eighteen-inch waist now. Gone are the chaste curves of the slim white silk legs that used to kick so lithely from the swirl of lace and chiffon. Yet there it hangs, pertly pathetic, mute evidence of her vanished youth, her delectable beauty, and her unblushing confidence in those same.
Up one aisle and down the next–velvet, satin, lace and broadcloth–here the costume the great Canfield had worn in Richard III; there the little cocked hat and the slashed jerkin in which Maude Hammond, as Peterkins, winged her way to fame up through the hearts of a million children whose ages ranged from seven to seventy. Brocades and ginghams; tailor suits and peignoirs; puffed sleeves and tight–dramatic history, all, they spelled failure, success, hope, despair, vanity, pride, triumph, decay. Tragic ghosts, over which Josie Fifer held grim sway!
Have I told you that Josie Fifer, moving nimbly about the great storehouse, limped as she went? The left leg swung as a normal leg should. The right followed haltingly, sagging at hip and knee. And that brings us back to the reason for her being where she was. And what.
The story of how Josie Fifer came to be mistress of the cast-off robes of the firm of Hahn & Lohman is one of those stage tragedies that never have a public performance. Josie had been one of those little girls who speak pieces at chicken-pie suppers held in the basement of the Presbyterian church. Her mother had been a silly, idle woman addicted to mother hubbards and paper-backed novels about the house. Her one passion was the theatre, a passion that had very scant opportunity for feeding in Wapello, Iowa. Josie’s piece-speaking talent was evidently a direct inheritance. Some might call it a taint.
Two days before one of Josie’s public appearances her mother would twist the child’s hair into innumerable rag curlers that stood out in grotesque, Topsy-like bumps all over her fair head. On the eventful evening each rag chrysalis would burst into a full-blown butterfly curl. In a pale-blue, lace-fretted dress over a pale-blue slip, made in what her mother called “Empire style,” Josie would deliver herself of “Entertaining Big Sister’s Beau” and other sophisticated classics with an incredible ease and absence of embarrassment. It wasn’t a definite boldness in her. She merely liked standing there before all those people, in her blue dress and her toe slippers, speaking her pieces with enhancing gestures taught her by her mother in innumerable rehearsals.
Any one who has ever lived in Wapello, Iowa, or its equivalent, remembers the old opera house on the corner of Main and Elm, with Schroeder’s drug store occupying the first floor. Opera never came within three hundred miles of Wapello, unless it was the so-called comic kind. It was before the day of the ubiquitous moving-picture theatre that has since been the undoing of the one-night stand and the ten-twenty-thirty stock company. The old red-brick opera house furnished unlimited thrills for Josie and her mother. From the time Josie was seven she was taken to see whatever Wapello was offered in the way of the drama. That consisted mostly of plays of the tell-me-more-about-me-mother type.
By the time she was ten she knew the whole repertoire of the Maude La Vergne Stock Company by heart. She was blase with “East Lynne” and “The Two Orphans,” and even “Camille” left her cold. She was as wise to the trade tricks as is a New York first nighter. She would sit there in the darkened auditorium of a Saturday afternoon, surveying the stage with a judicious and undeceived eye, as she sucked indefatigably at a lollipop extracted from the sticky bag clutched in one moist palm. (A bag of candy to each and every girl; a ball or a top to each and every boy!) Josie knew that the middle-aged soubrette who came out between the first and second acts to sing a gingham-and-sunbonnet song would whisk off to reappear immediately in knee-length pink satin and curls. When the heroine left home in a shawl and a sudden snowstorm that followed her upstage and stopped when she went off, Josie was interested, but undeceived. She knew that the surprised-looking white horse used in the Civil War comedy-drama entitled “His Southern Sweetheart” came from Joe Brink’s livery stable in exchange for four passes, and that the faithful old negro servitor in the white cotton wig would save somebody from something before the afternoon was over.
In was inevitable that as Josie grew older she should take part in home-talent plays. It was one of these tinsel affairs that had made clear to her just where her future lay. The Wapello Daily Courier helped her in her decision. She had taken the part of a gipsy queen, appropriately costumed in slightly soiled white satin slippers with four-inch heels, and a white satin dress enhanced by a red sash, a black velvet bolero, and large hoop earrings. She had danced and sung with a pert confidence, and the Courier had pronounced her talents not amateur, but professional, and had advised the managers (who, no doubt, read the Wapello Courier daily, along with their Morning Telegraph) to seek her out, and speedily.
Josie didn’t wait for them to take the hint. She sought them out instead. There followed seven tawdry, hard-working, heartbreaking years. Supe, walk-on, stock, musical comedy–Josie went through them all. If any illusions about the stage had survived her Wapello days, they would have vanished in the first six months of her dramatic career. By the time she was twenty-four she had acquired the wisdom of fifty, a near-seal coat, a turquoise ring with a number of smoky-looking crushed diamonds surrounding it, and a reputation for wit and for decency. The last had cost the most.
During all these years of cheap theatrical boarding houses (the most soul-searing cheapness in the world), of one-night stands, of insult, disappointment, rebuff, and something that often came perilously near to want, Josie Fifer managed to retain a certain humorous outlook on life. There was something whimsical about it. She could even see a joke on herself. When she first signed her name Jose Fyfer, for example, she did it with, an appreciative giggle and a glint in her eye as she formed the accent mark over the e.
“They’ll never stop me now,” she said. “I’m made. But I wish I knew if that J was pronounced like H, in humbug. Are there any Spanish blondes?”
It used to be the habit of the other women in the company to say to her: “Jo, I’m blue as the devil to-day. Come on, give us a laugh.”
She always obliged.
And then came a Sunday afternoon in late August when her laugh broke off short in the middle, and was forever after a stunted thing.
She was playing Atlantic City in a second-rate musical show. She had never seen the ocean before, and she viewed it now with an appreciation that still had in it something of a Wapello freshness.
They all planned to go in bathing that hot August afternoon after rehearsal. Josie had seen pictures of the beauteous bathing girl dashing into the foaming breakers. She ran across the stretch of glistening beach, paused and struck a pose, one toe pointed waterward, her arms extended affectedly.
“So!” she said mincingly. “So this is Paris!”
It was a new line in those days, and they all laughed, as she had meant they should. So she leaped into the water with bounds and shouts and much waving of white arms. A great floating derelict of a log struck her leg with its full weight, and with all the tremendous force of the breaker behind it. She doubled up ridiculously, and went down like a shot. Those on the beach laughed again. When she came up, and they saw her distorted face they stopped laughing, and fished her out. Her leg was broken in two places, and mashed in a dozen.
Jose Fyfer’s dramatic career was over. (This is not the cheery portion of the story.)
When she came out of the hospital, three months later, she did very well indeed with her crutches. But the merry-eyed woman had vanished–she of the Wapello colouring that had persisted during all these years. In her place limped a wan, shrunken, tragic little figure whose humour had soured to a caustic wit. The near-seal coat and the turquoise-and-crushed-diamond ring had vanished too.
During those agonized months she had received from the others in the company such kindness and generosity as only stage folk can show–flowers, candy, dainties, magazines, sent by every one from the prima donna to the call boy. Then the show left town. There came a few letters of kind inquiry, then an occasional post card, signed by half a dozen members of the company. Then these ceased. Josie Fifer, in her cast and splints and bandages and pain, dragged out long hospital days and interminable hospital nights. She took a dreary pleasure in following the tour of her erstwhile company via the pages of the theatrical magazines.
“They’re playing Detroit this week,” she would announce to the aloof and spectacled nurse. Or: “One-night stands, and they’re due in Muncie, Ind., to-night. I don’t know which is worse–playing Muncie for one night or this moan factory for a three month’s run.”
When she was able to crawl out as far as the long corridor she spoke to every one she met. As she grew stronger she visited here and there, and on the slightest provocation she would give a scene ranging all the way from “Romeo and Juliet” to “The Black Crook.” It was thus she first met Sid Hahn, and felt the warming, healing glow of his friendship.
Some said that Sid Hahn’s brilliant success as a manager at thirty-five was due to his ability to pick winners. Others thought it was his refusal to be discouraged when he found he had picked a failure. Still others, who knew him better, were likely to say: “Why, I don’t know. It’s a sort of–well, you might call it charm–and yet–. Did you ever see him smile? He’s got a million-dollar grin. You can’t resist it.”
None of them was right. Or all of them. Sid Hahn, erstwhile usher, call boy, press agent, advance man, had a genius for things theatrical. It was inborn. Dramatic, sensitive, artistic, intuitive, he was often rendered inarticulate by the very force and variety of his feelings. A little, rotund, ugly man, Sid Hahn, with the eyes of a dreamer, the wide, mobile mouth of a humourist, the ears of a comic ol’-clo’es man. His generosity was proverbial, and it amounted to a vice.
In September he had come to Atlantic City to try out “Splendour.” It was a doubtful play, by a new author, starring Sarah Haddon for the first time. No one dreamed the play would run for years, make a fortune for Hahn, lift Haddon from obscurity to the dizziest heights of stardom, and become a classic of the stage.
Ten minutes before the curtain went up on the opening performance Hahn was stricken with appendicitis. There was not even time to rush him to New York. He was on the operating table before the second act was begun. When he came out of the ether he said: “How did it go?”
“Fine!” beamed the nurse. “You’ll be out in two weeks.”
“Oh, hell! I don’t mean the operation. I mean the play.”
He learned soon enough from the glowing, starry-eyed Sarah Haddon and from every one connected with the play. He insisted on seeing them all daily, against his doctor’s orders, and succeeded in working up a temperature that made his hospital stay a four weeks’ affair. He refused to take the tryout results as final.
“Don’t be too bubbly about this thing,” he cautioned Sarah Haddon. “I’ve seen too many plays that were skyrockets on the road come down like sticks when they struck New York.”
The company stayed over in Atlantic City for a week, and Hahn held scraps of rehearsals in his room when he had a temperature of 102. Sarah Haddon worked like a slave. She seemed to realise that her great opportunity had come–the opportunity for which hundreds of gifted actresses wait a lifetime. Haddon was just twenty-eight then–a year younger than Josie Fifer. She had not yet blossomed into the full radiance of her beauty. She was too slender, and inclined to stoop a bit, but her eyes were glorious, her skin petal-smooth, her whole face reminding one, somehow, of an intelligent flower. Her voice was a golden, liquid delight.
Josie Fifer, dragging herself from bed to chair, and from chair to bed, used to watch for her. Hahn’s room was on her floor. Sarah Haddon, in her youth and beauty and triumph, represented to Josie all that she had dreamed of and never realised; all that she had hoped for and never could know. She used to insist on having her door open, and she would lie there for hours, her eyes fixed on that spot in the hall across which Haddon would flash for one brief instant on her way to the room down the corridor. There is about a successful actress a certain radiant something–a glamour, a luxuriousness, an atmosphere that suggest a mysterious mixture of silken things, of perfume, of adulation, of all that is rare and costly and perishable and desirable.
Josie Fifer’s stage experience had included none of this. But she knew they were there. She sensed that to this glorious artist would come all those fairy gifts that Josie Fifer would never possess. All things about her–her furs, her gloves, her walk, her hats, her voice, her very shoe ties–were just what Josie would have wished for. As she lay there she developed a certain grim philosophy.
“She’s got everything a woman could wish for. Me, I haven’t got a thing. Not a blamed thing! And yet they say everything works out in the end according to some scheme or other. Well, what’s the answer to this, I wonder? I can’t make it come out right. I guess one of the figures must have got away from me.”
In the second week of Sid Hahn’s convalescence he heard, somehow, of Josie Fifer. It was characteristic of him that he sent for her. She put a chiffon scarf about the neck of her skimpy little kimono, spent an hour and ten minutes on her hair, made up outrageously with that sublime unconsciousness that comes from too close familiarity with rouge pad and grease jar, and went. She was trembling as though facing a first-night audience in a part she wasn’t up on. Between the crutches, the lameness, and the trembling she presented to Sid Hahn, as she stood in the doorway, a picture that stabbed his kindly, sensitive heart with a quick pang of sympathy.
He held out his hand. Josie’s crept into it. At the feel of that generous friendly clasp she stopped trembling. Said Hahn:
“My nurse tells me that you can do a bedside burlesque of ‘East Lynne’ that made even that Boston-looking interne with the thick glasses laugh. Go on and do it for me, there’s a good girl. I could use a laugh myself just now.”
And Josie Fifer caught up a couch cover for a cloak, with the scarf that was about her neck for a veil, and, using Hahn himself as the ailing chee-ild, gave a biting burlesque of the famous bedside visit that brought the tears of laughter to his eyes, and the nurse flying from down the hall. “This won’t do,” said that austere person.
“Won’t, eh? Go on and stick your old thermometer in my mouth. What do I care! A laugh like that is worth five degrees of temperature.”
When Josie rose to leave he eyed her keenly, and pointed to the dragging leg.
“How about that? Temporary or permanent?”
“Oh, fudge! Who’s telling you that? These days they can do–“
“Not with this, though. That one bone was mashed into about twenty-nine splinters, and when it came to putting ’em together again a couple of pieces were missing. I must’ve mislaid ’em somewhere. Anyway, I make a limping exit–for life.”
“Then no more stage for you–eh, my girl?”
“No more stage.”
Hahn reached for a pad of paper on the table at his bedside, scrawled a few words on it, signed it “S.H.” in the fashion which became famous, and held the paper out to her.
“When you get out of here,” he said, “you come to New York, and up to my office; see? Give ’em this at the door. I’ve got a job for you–if you want it.”
And that was how Josie Fifer came to take charge of the great Hahn & Lohman storehouse. It was more than a storehouse. It was a museum. It housed the archives of the American stage. If Hahn & Lohman prided themselves on one thing more than on another, it was the lavish generosity with which they invested a play, from costumes to carpets. A period play was a period play when they presented it. You never saw a French clock on a Dutch mantel in a Hahn & Lohman production. No hybrid hangings marred their back drop. No matter what the play, the firm provided its furnishings from the star’s slippers to the chandeliers. Did a play last a year or a week, at the end of its run furniture, hangings, scenery, rugs, gowns, everything, went off in wagonloads to the already crowded storehouse on East Forty-third Street.
Sometimes a play proved so popular that its original costumes, outworn, had to be renewed. Sometimes the public cried “Thumbs down!” at the opening performance, and would have none of it thereafter. That meant that costumes sometimes reached Josie Fifer while the wounds of the dressmaker’s needle still bled in them. And whether for a week or a year fur on a Hahn & Lohman costume was real fur; its satin was silk-backed, its lace real lace. No paste, or tinsel, or cardboard about H. & L.! Josie Fifer could recall the scenes in a play, step by step from noting with her keen eye the marks left on costume after costume by the ravages of emotion. At the end of a play’s run she would hold up a dress for critical inspection, turning it this way and that.
“This is the dress she wore in her big scene at the end of the second act where she crawls on her knees to her wronged husband and pounds on the door and weeps. She certainly did give it some hard wear. When Marriott crawls she crawls, and when she bawls she bawls. I’ll say that for her. From the looks of this front breadth she must have worn a groove in the stage at the York.”
No gently sentimental reason caused Hahn & Lohman to house these hundreds of costumes, these tons of scenery, these forests of furniture. Neither had Josie Fifer been hired to walk wistfully among them like a spinster wandering in a dead rose garden. No, they were stored for a much thriftier reason. They were stored, if you must know, for possible future use. H. & L. were too clever not to use a last year’s costume for a this year’s road show. They knew what a coat of enamel would do for a bedroom set. It was Josie Fifer’s duty not only to tabulate and care for these relics, but to refurbish them when necessary. The sewing was done by a little corps of assistants under Josie’s direction.
But all this came with the years. When Josie Fifer, white and weak, first took charge of the H. & L. lares et penates, she told herself it was only for a few months–a year or two at most. The end of sixteen years found her still there.
When she came to New York, “Splendour” was just beginning its phenomenal three years’ run. The city was mad about the play. People came to see it again and again–a sure sign of a long run. The Sarah Haddon second-act costume was photographed, copied (unsuccessfully), talked about, until it became as familiar as a uniform. That costume had much to do with the play’s success, though Sarah Haddon would never admit it. “Splendour” was what is known as a period play. The famous dress was of black velvet, made with a quaint, full-gathered skirt that made Haddon’s slim waist seem fairylike and exquisitely supple. The black velvet bodice outlined the delicate swell of the bust. A rope of pearls enhanced the whiteness of her throat. Her hair, done in old-time scallops about her forehead, was a gleaming marvel of simplicity, and the despair of every woman who tried to copy it. The part was that of an Italian opera singer. The play pulsated with romance and love, glamour and tragedy. Sarah Haddon, in her flowing black velvet robe and her pearls and her pallor, was an exotic, throbbing, exquisite realisation of what every woman in the audience dreamed of being and every man dreamed of loving.
Josie Fifer saw the play for the first time from a balcony seat given her by Sid Hahn. It left her trembling, red-eyed, shaken. After that she used to see it, by hook or crook whenever possible. She used to come in at the stage door and lurk back of the scenes and in the wings when she had no business there. She invented absurd errands to take her to the theatre where “Splendour” was playing. Sid Hahn always said that after the big third-act scene he liked to watch the audience swim up the aisle. Josie, hidden in the back-stage shadows, used to watch, fascinated, breathless. Then, one night, she indiscreetly was led, by her, absorbed interest, to venture too far into the wings. It was during the scene where Haddon, hearing a broken-down street singer cracking the golden notes of “Aida” into a thousand mutilated fragments, throws open her window and, leaning far out, pours a shower of Italian and broken English and laughter and silver coin upon her amazed compatriot below.
When the curtain went down she came off raging.
“What was that? Who was that standing in the wings? How dare any one stand there! Everybody knows I can’t have any one in the wings. Staring! It ruined my scene to-night. Where’s McCabe? Tell Mr. Hahn I want to see him. Who was it? Staring at me like a ghost!”
Josie had crept away, terrified, contrite, and yet resentful. But the next week saw her back at the theatre, though she took care to stay in the shadows.
She was waiting for the black velvet dress. It was more than a dress to her. It was infinitely more than a stage costume. It was the habit of glory. It epitomised all that Josie Fifer had missed of beauty and homage and success.
The play ran on, and on, and on. Sarah Haddon was superstitious about the black gown. She refused to give it up for a new one. She insisted that if ever she discarded the old black velvet for a new the run of the play would stop. She assured Hahn that its shabbiness did not show from the front. She clung to it with that childish unreasonableness that is so often found in people of the stage.
But Josie waited patiently. Dozens of costumes passed through her hands. She saw plays come and go. Dresses came to her whose lining bore the mark of world-famous modistes. She hung them away, or refurbished them if necessary with disinterested conscientiousness. Sometimes her caustic comment, as she did so, would have startled the complacency of the erstwhile wearers of the garments. Her knowledge of the stage, its artifices, its pretence, its narrowness, its shams, was widening and deepening. No critic in bone-rimmed glasses and evening clothes was more scathingly severe than she. She sewed on satin. She mended fine lace. She polished stage jewels. And waited. She knew that one day her patience would be rewarded. And then, at last came the familiar voice over the phone: “Hello, Fifer! McCabe talking.”
“‘Splendour’ closes Saturday. Haddon says she won’t play in this heat. They’re taking it to London in the autumn. The stuff’ll be up Monday, early.”
Josie Fifer turned away from the telephone with a face so radiant that one of her sewing women, looking up, was moved to comment.
“Got some good news, Miss Fifer?”
“‘Splendour’ closes this week.”
“Well, my land! To look at you a person would think you’d been losing money at the box office every night it ran.”
The look was still on her face when Monday morning came. She was sewing on a dress just discarded by Adelaide French, the tragedienne. Adelaide’s maid was said to be the hardest-worked woman in the profession. When French finished with a costume it was useless as a dress; but it was something historic, like a torn and tattered battle flag–an emblem.
McCabe, box under his arm, stood in the doorway. Josie Fifer stood up so suddenly that the dress on her lap fell to the floor. She stepped over it heedlessly, and went toward McCabe, her eyes on the pasteboard box. Behind McCabe stood two more men, likewise box-laden.
“Put them down here,” said Josie. The men thumped the boxes down on the long table. Josie’s fingers were already at the strings. She opened the first box, emptied its contents, tossed them aside, passed on to the second. Her hands busied themselves among the silks and broadcloth of this; then on to the third and last box. McCabe and his men, with scenery and furniture still to unload and store, turned to go. Their footsteps echoed hollowly as they clattered down the worn old stairway. Josie snapped the cord that bound the third box. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. She turned it upside down. Then she pawed it over. Then she went back to the contents of the first two boxes, clawing about among the limp garments with which the table was strewn. She was breathing quickly. Suddenly: “It isn’t here!” she cried. “It isn’t here!” She turned and flew to the stairway. The voices of the men came up to her. She leaned far over the railing. “McCabe! McCabe!”
“Yeh? What do you want?”
“The black velvet dress! The black velvet dress! It isn’t there.”
“Oh, yeh. That’s all right. Haddon, she’s got a bug about that dress, and she says she wants to take it to London with her, to use on the opening night. She says if she wears a new one that first night, the play’ll be a failure. Some temperament, that girl, since she’s got to be a star!”
Josie stood clutching the railing of the stairway. Her disappointment was so bitter that she could not weep. She felt cheated, outraged. She was frightened at the intensity of her own sensations. “She might have let me have it,” she said aloud in the dim half light of the hallway. “She’s got everything else in the world. She might have let me have that.”
Then she went back into the big, bright sewing room. “Splendour” ran three years in London.
During those three years she saw Sid Hahn only three or four times. He spent much of his time abroad. Whenever opportunity presented itself she would say: “Is ‘Splendour’ still playing in London?”
The last time Hahn, intuitive as always, had eyed her curiously. “You seem to be interested in that play.”
“Oh, well,” Josie had replied with assumed carelessness, “it being in Atlantic City just when I had my accident, and then meeting you through that, and all, why, I always kind of felt a personal interest in it.” …
At the end of three years Sarah Haddon returned to New York with an English accent, a slight embonpoint, and a little foreign habit of rushing up to her men friends with a delighted exclamation (preferably French) and kissing them on both cheeks. When Josie Fifer, happening back stage at a rehearsal of the star’s new play, first saw her do this a grim gleam came into her eyes.
“Bernhardt’s the only woman who can spring that and get away with it,” she said to her assistant. “Haddon’s got herself sized up wrong. I’ll gamble her next play will be a failure.”
And it was.
The scenery, props, and costumes of the London production of “Splendour” were slow in coming back. But finally they did come. Josie received them with the calmness that comes of hope deferred. It had been three years since she last saw the play. She told herself, chidingly, that she had been sort of foolish over that play and this costume. Her recent glimpse of Haddon had been somewhat disillusioning. But now, when she finally held the gown itself in her hand–the original “Splendour” second-act gown, a limp, soft black mass: just a few yards of worn and shabby velvet–she found her hands shaking. Here was where she had hugged the toy dog to her breast. Here where she had fallen on her knees to pray before the little shrine in her hotel room. Every worn spot had a meaning for her. Every mark told a story. Her fingers smoothed it tenderly.
“Not much left of that,” said one of the sewing girls, glancing up. “I guess Sarah would have a hard time making the hooks and eyes meet now. They say she’s come home from London looking a little too prosperous.”
Josie did not answer. She folded the dress over her arm and carried it to the wardrobe room. There she hung it away in an empty closet, quite apart from the other historic treasures. And there it hung, untouched, until the following Sunday.
On Sunday morning East Forty-third Street bears no more resemblance to the week-day Forty-third than does a stiffly starched and subdued Sabbath-school scholar to his Monday morning self. Strangely quiet it is, and unfrequented. Josie Fifer, scurrying along in the unwonted stillness, was prompted to throw a furtive glance over her shoulder now and then, as though afraid of being caught at some criminal act. She ran up the little flight of steps with a rush, unlocked the door with trembling fingers, and let herself into the cool, dank gloom of the storehouse hall. The metal door of the elevator stared inquiringly after her. She fled past it to the stairway. Every step of that ancient structure squeaked and groaned. First floor, second, third, fourth. The everyday hum of the sewing machines was absent. The room seemed to be holding its breath. Josie fancied that the very garments on the worktables lifted themselves inquiringly from their supine position to see what it was that disturbed their Sabbath rest. Josie, a tense, wide-eyed, frightened little figure, stood in the centre of the vast room, listening to she knew not what. Then, relaxing, she gave a nervous little laugh and, reaching up, unpinned her hat. She threw it on a near-by table and disappeared into the wardrobe room beyond.
Minutes passed–an hour. She did not come back. From the room beyond came strange sounds–a woman’s voice; the thrill of a song; cries; the anguish of tears; laughter, harsh and high, as a desperate and deceived woman laughs–all this following in such rapid succession that Sid Hahn, puffing laboriously up the four flights of stairs leading to the wardrobe floor, entered the main room unheard. Unknown to any one, he was indulging in one of his unsuspected visits to the old wareroom that housed the evidence of past and gone successes–successes that had brought him fortune and fame, but little real happiness, perhaps. No one knew that he loved to browse among these pathetic rags of a forgotten triumph. No one would have dreamed that this chubby little man could glow and weep over the cast-off garment of a famous Cyrano, or the faded finery of a Zaza.
At the doorway he paused now, startled. He was listening with every nerve of his taut body. What? Who? He tiptoed across the room with a step incredibly light for one so stout, peered cautiously around the side of the doorway, and leaned up against it weakly. Josie Fifer, in the black velvet and mock pearls of “Splendour,” with her grey-streaked blonde hair hidden under the romantic scallops of a black wig, was giving the big scene from the third act. And though it sounded like a burlesque of that famous passage, and though she limped more than ever as she reeled to an imaginary shrine in the corner, and though the black wig was slightly askew by now, and the black velvet hung with bunchy awkwardness about her skinny little body, there was nothing of mirth in Sid Hahn’s face as he gazed. He shrank back now.
She was coming to the big speech at the close of the act–the big renunciation speech that was the curtain. Sid Hahn turned and tiptoed painfully, breathlessly, magnificently, out of the big front room, into the hallway, down the creaking stairs, and so to the sunshine of Forty-third Street, with its unaccustomed Sunday-morning quiet. And he was smiling that rare and melting smile of his–the smile that was said to make him look something like a kewpie, and something like a cupid, and a bit like an imp, and very much like an angel. There was little of the first three in it now, and very much of the last. And so he got heavily into his very grand motor car and drove off.
“Why, the poor little kid,” said he–“the poor, lonely, stifled little crippled-up kid.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?” inquired his chauffeur.
“Speak when you’re spoken to,” snapped Sid Hahn.
And here it must be revealed to you that Sid Hahn did not marry the Cinderella of the storage warehouse. He did not marry anybody, and neither did Josie. And yet there is a bit more to this story–ten years more, if you must know–ten years, the end of which found Josie a sparse, spectacled, and agile little cripple, as alert and caustic as ever. It found Sid Hahn the most famous theatrical man of his day. It found Sarah Haddon at the fag-end of a career that had blazed with triumph and adulation. She had never had a success like “Splendour.” Indeed, there were those who said that all the plays that followed had been failures, carried to semi-success on the strength of that play’s glorious past. She eschewed low-cut gowns now. She knew that it is the telltale throat which first shows the marks of age. She knew, too, why Bernhardt, in “Camille,” always died in a high-necked nightgown. She took to wearing high, ruffled things about her throat, and softening, kindly chiffons.
And then, in a mistaken moment, they planned a revival of “Splendour.” Sarah Haddon would again play the part that had become a classic. Fathers had told their children of it–of her beauty, her golden voice, the exquisite grace of her, the charm, the tenderness, the pathos. And they told them of the famous black velvet dress, and how in it she had moved like a splendid, buoyant bird.
So they revived “Splendour.” And men and women brought their sons and daughters to see. And what they saw was a stout, middle-aged woman in a too-tight black velvet dress that made her look like a dowager. And when this woman flopped down on her knees in the big scene at the close of the last act she had a rather dreadful time of it getting up again. And the audience, resentful, bewildered, cheated of a precious memory, laughed. That laugh sealed the career of Sarah Haddon. It is a fickle thing, this public that wants to be amused; fickle and cruel and–paradoxically enough–true to its superstitions. The Sarah Haddon of eighteen years ago was one of these. They would have none of this fat, puffy, ample-bosomed woman who was trying to blot her picture from their memory. “Away with her!” cried the critics through the columns of next morning’s paper. And Sarah Haddon’s day was done.
“It’s because I didn’t wear the original black velvet dress!” cried she, with the unreasoning rage for which she had always been famous. “If I had worn it, everything would have been different. That dress had a good-luck charm. Where is it? I want it. I don’t care if they do take off the play. I want it. I want it.”
“Why, child,” Sid Hahn said soothingly, “that dress has probably fallen into dust by this time.”
“Dust! What do you mean? How old do you think I am? That you should say that to me! I’ve made millions for you, and now–“
“Now, now, Sally, be a good girl. That’s all rot about that dress being lucky. You’ve grown out of this part; that’s all. We’ll find another play–“
“I want that dress.”
Sid Hahn flushed uncomfortably. “Well, if you must know, I gave it away.”
“To–to Josie Fifer. She took a notion to it, and so I told her she could have it.” Then, as Sarah Haddon rose, dried her eyes, and began to straighten her hat: “Where are you going?” He trailed her to the door worriedly. “Now, Sally, don’t do anything foolish. You’re just tired and overstrung. Where are you–“
“I am going to see Josie Fifer.”
“Now, look here, Sarah!”
But she was off, and Sid Hahn could only follow after, the showman in him anticipating the scene that was to follow. When he reached the fourth floor of the storehouse Sarah Haddon was there ahead of him. The two women–one tall, imperious, magnificent in furs; the other shrunken, deformed, shabby–stood staring at each other from opposites sides of the worktable. And between them, in a crumpled, grey-black heap, lay the velvet gown.
“I don’t care who says you can have it,” Josie Fifer’s shrill voice was saying. “It’s mine, and I’m going to keep it. Mr. Hahn himself gave it to me. He said I could cut it up for a dress or something if I wanted to. Long ago.” Then, as Sid Hahn himself appeared, she appealed to him. “There he is now. Didn’t you, Mr. Hahn? Didn’t you say I could have it? Years ago?”
“Yes, Jo,” said Sid Hahn. “It’s yours, to do with as you wish.”
Sarah Haddon, who never had been denied anything in all her pampered life, turned to him now. Her bosom rose and fell. She was breathing sharply. “But S.H.!” she cried, “S.H., I’ve got to have it. Don’t you see, I want it! It’s all I’ve got left in the world of what I used to be. I want it!” She began to cry, and it was not acting.
Josie Fifer stood staring at her, her eyes wide with horror and unbelief.
“Why, say, listen! Listen! You can have it. I didn’t know you wanted it as bad as that. Why, you can have it. I want you to take it. Here.”
She shoved it across the table. Sarah reached out for it quickly. She rolled it up in a tight bundle and whisked off with it without a backward glance at Josie or at Hahn. She was still sobbing as she went down the stairs.
The two stood staring at each other ludicrously. Hahn spoke first.
“I’m sorry, Josie. That was nice of you, giving it to her like that.”
But Josie did not seem to hear. At least she paid no attention to his remark. She was staring at him with that dazed and wide-eyed look of one upon whom a great truth has just dawned. Then, suddenly, she began to laugh. She laughed a high, shrill laugh that was not so much an expression of mirth as of relief.
Sid Hahn put up a pudgy hand in protest. “Josie! Please! For the love of Heaven don’t you go and get it. I’ve had to do with one hysterical woman to-day. Stop that laughing! Stop it!”
Josie stopped, not abruptly, but in a little series of recurring giggles. Then these subsided and she was smiling. It wasn’t at all her usual smile. The bitterness was quite gone from it. She faced Sid Hahn across the table. Her palms were outspread, as one who would make things plain. “I wasn’t hysterical. I was just laughing. I’ve been about seventeen years earning that laugh. Don’t grudge it to me.”
“Let’s have the plot,” said Hahn.
“There isn’t any. You see, it’s just–well, I’ve just discovered how it works out. After all these years! She’s had everything she wanted all her life. And me, I’ve never had anything. Not a thing. She’s travelled one way, and I’ve travelled in the opposite direction, and where has it brought us? Here we are, both fighting over an old black velvet rag. Don’t you see? Both wanting the same–” She broke off, with the little twisted smile on her lips again. “Life’s a strange thing, Mr. Hahn.”
“I hope, Josie, you don’t claim any originality for that remark,” replied Sid Hahn dryly.
“But,” argued the editor, “you don’t call this a cheerful story, I hope.”
“Well, perhaps not exactly boisterous. But it teaches a lesson, and all that. And it’s sort of philosophical and everything, don’t you think?”
The editor shuffled the sheets together decisively, so that they formed a neat sheaf. “I’m afraid I didn’t make myself quite clear. It’s entertaining, and all that, but–ah–in view of our present needs, I’m sorry to say we–“