Not A Day Over Twenty-One by Edna Ferber

Story type: Literature

Any one old enough to read this is old enough to remember that favourite heroine of fiction who used to start her day by rising from her couch, flinging wide her casement, leaning out and breathing deep the perfumed morning air. You will recall, too, the pure white rose clambering at the side of the casement, all jewelled with the dew of dawn. This the lady plucked carolling. Daily she plucked it. A hardy perennial if ever there was one. Subsequently, pressing it to her lips, she flung it into the garden below, where stood her lover (likewise an early riser).

Romantic proceeding this, but unhygienic when you consider that her rush for the closed casement was doubtless due to the fact that her bedroom, hermetically sealed during the night, must have grown pretty stuffy by morning. Her complexion was probably bad.

No such idyllic course marked the matin of our heroine. Her day’s beginning differed from the above in practically every detail. Thus:

A–When Harrietta rose from her couch (cream enamel, full-sized bed with double hair mattress and box springs) she closed her casement with a bang, having slept in a gale that swept her two-room-and-kitchenette apartment on the eleventh floor in Fifty-sixth Street.

B–She never leaned out except, perhaps, to flap a dust rag, because lean as she might, defying the laws of gravity and the house superintendent, she could have viewed nothing more than roofs and sky and chimneys where already roofs and sky and chimneys filled the eye (unless you consider that by screwing around and flattening one ear and the side of your jaw against the window jamb you could almost get a glimpse of distant green prominently mentioned in the agent’s ad as “unexcelled view of Park”).

C–The morning air wasn’t perfumed for purposes of breathing deep, being New York morning air, richly laden with the smell of warm asphalt, smoke, gas, and, when the wind was right, the glue factory on the Jersey shore across the river.

D–She didn’t pluck a rose, carolling, because even if, by some magic Burbankian process, Jack’s bean-stalk had been made rose-bearing it would have been hard put to it to reach this skyscraper home.

E–If she had flung it, it probably would have ended its eleven-story flight in the hand cart of Messinger’s butcher boy, who usually made his first Fifty-sixth Street delivery at about that time.

F–The white rose would not have been jewelled and sparkling with the dews of dawn, anyway, as at Harrietta’s rising hour (between 10.30 and 11.30 A. M.) the New York City dews, if any, have left for the day.

Spartans who rise regularly at the chaste hour of seven will now regard Harrietta with disapproval. These should be told that Harrietta never got to bed before twelve-thirty nor to sleep before two-thirty, which, on an eight-hour sleep count, should even things up somewhat in their minds. They must know, too, that in one corner of her white-and-blue bathroom reposed a pair of wooden dumb-bells, their ankles neatly crossed. She used them daily. Also she bathed, massaged, exercised, took facial and electric treatments; worked like a slave; lived like an athlete in training in order to preserve her hair, skin, teeth, and figure; almost never ate what she wanted nor as much as she liked.

That earlier lady of the closed casement and the white rose probably never even heard of a dentifrice or a cold shower.

The result of Harrietta’s rigours was that now, at thirty-seven, she could pass for twenty-seven on Fifth Avenue at five o’clock (flesh-pink, single-mesh face veil); twenty-five at a small dinner (rose-coloured shades over the candles), and twenty-two, easily, behind the amber footlights.

You will have guessed that Harrietta, the Heroine, is none other than Harrietta Fuller, deftest of comediennes, whom you have seen in one or all of those slim little plays in which she has made a name but no money to speak of, being handicapped for the American stage by her intelligence and her humour sense, and, as she would tell you, by her very name itself.

“Harrietta Fuller! Don’t you see what I mean?” she would say. “In the first place, it’s hard to remember. And it lacks force. Or maybe rhythm. It doesn’t clink. It sort of humps in the middle. A name should flow. Take a name like Barrymore–or Bernhardt–or Duse–you can’t forget them. Oh, I’m not comparing myself to them. Don’t be funny. I just mean–why, take Harrietta alone. It’s deadly. A Thackeray miss, all black silk mitts and white cotton stockings. Long ago, in the beginning, I thought of shortening it. But Harriet Fuller sounds like a school-teacher, doesn’t it? And Hattie Fuller makes me think, somehow, of a burlesque actress. You know. ‘Hattie Fuller and Her Bouncing Belles.’”

At thirty-seven Harrietta Fuller had been fifteen years on the stage. She had little money, a small stanch following, an exquisite technique, and her fur coat was beginning to look gnawed around the edges. People even said maddeningly: “Harrietta Fuller? I saw her when I was a kid, years ago. Why, she must be le’see–ten–twelve–why, she must be going on pretty close to forty.”

A worshipper would defend her. “You’re crazy! I saw her last month when she was playing in Cincinnati, and she doesn’t look a day over twenty-one. That’s a cute play she’s in–There and Back. Not much to it, but she’s so kind and natural. Made me think of Jen a little.”

That was part of Harrietta’s art–making people think of Jen. Watching her, they would whisper: “Look! Isn’t that Jen all over? The way she sits there and looks up at him while she’s sewing.”

Harrietta Fuller could take lines that were stilted and shoddy and speak them in a way to make them sound natural and distinctive and real. She was a clear blonde, but her speaking voice had in it a contralto note that usually accompanies brunette colouring.

It surprised and gratified you, that tone, as does mellow wine when you have expected cider. She could walk on to one of those stage library sets that reek of the storehouse and the property carpenter, seat herself, take up a book or a piece of handiwork, and instantly the absurd room became a human, livable place. She had a knack of sitting, not as an actress ordinarily seats herself in a drawing room–feet carefully strained to show the high arch, body posed to form a “line”–but easily, as a woman sits in her own house. If you saw her in the supper scene of My Mistake, you will remember how she twisted her feet about the rungs of the straight little chair in which she sat. Her back was toward the audience throughout the scene, according to stage directions, yet she managed to convey embarrassment, fright, terror, determination, decision in the agonized twisting of those expressive feet.

Authors generally claimed these bits of business as having originated with them. For that matter, she was a favourite with playwrights, as well she might be, considering the vitality which she injected into their hackneyed situations. Every little while some young writer, fired by an inflection in her voice or a nuance in her comedy, would rush back stage to tell her that she never had had a part worthy of her, and that he would now come to her rescue. Sometimes he kept his word, and Harrietta, six months later, would look up from the manuscript to say: “This is delightful! It’s what I’ve been looking for for years. The deftness of the comedy. And that little scene with the gardener!”

But always, after the managers had finished suggesting bits that would brighten it up, and changes that would put it over with the Western buyers, Harrietta would regard the mutilated manuscript sorrowingly. “But I can’t play this now, you know. It isn’t the same part at all. It’s–forgive me–vulgar.”

Then some little red-haired ingenue would get it, and it would run a solid year on Broadway and two seasons on the road, and in all that time Harrietta would have played six months, perhaps, in three different plays, in all of which she would score what is known as a “personal success.” A personal success usually means bad business at the box office.

Now this is immensely significant. In the advertisements of the play in which Harrietta Fuller might be appearing you never read:

HARRIETTA FULLER
In
Thus and So

No. It was always:

THUS AND SO
With
Harrietta Fuller

Between those two prepositions lies a whole theatrical world of difference. The “In” means stardom; the “With” that the play is considered more important than the cast.

Don’t feel sorry for Harrietta Fuller. Thousands of women have envied her; thousands of men admired, and several have loved her devotedly, including her father, the Rev. H. John Scoville (deceased). The H. stands for Harry. She was named for him, of course. When he entered the church he was advised to drop his first name and use his second as being more fitting in his position. But the outward change did not affect his inner self. He remained more Harry than John to the last. It was from him Harrietta got her acting sense, her humour, her intelligence, and her bad luck.

When Harry Scoville was eighteen he wanted to go on the stage. At twenty he entered the ministry. It was the natural outlet for his suppressed talents. In his day and family and environment young men did not go on the stage. The Scovilles were Illinois pioneers and lived in Evanston, and Mrs. Scoville (Harrietta’s grandmother, you understand, though Harrietta had not yet appeared) had a good deal to say as to whether coleslaw or cucumber pickles should be served at the Presbyterian church suppers, along with the veal loaf and the scalloped oysters. And when she decided on coleslaw, coleslaw it was. A firm tread had Mother Scoville, a light hand with pastry, and a will that was adamant. She it was who misdirected Harry’s gifts toward the pulpit instead of the stage. He never forgave her for it, though he made a great success of his calling and she died unsuspecting his rancour. The women of his congregation shivered deliciously when the Rev. H. John Scoville stood on his tiptoes at the apex of some fiery period and hurled the force of his eloquence at them. He, the minister, was unconsciously dramatizing himself as a minister.

See also  More Paternal Correspondence by Edgar Wilson Nye

The dramatic method had not then come into use in the pulpit. His method of delivery was more restrained than that of the old-time revivalist; less analytical and detached than that of the present-day religious lecturer.

Presbyterian Evanston wending its way home to Sunday roast and ice cream would say: “Wasn’t Reverend Scoville powerful to-day! My!” They never guessed how Reverend Scoville had had to restrain himself from delivering Mark Antony’s address to the Romans. He often did it in his study when his gentle wife thought he was rehearsing next Sunday’s sermon.

As he grew older he overcame these boyish weaknesses, but he never got over his feeling for the stage. There were certain ill-natured gossips who claimed to have recognized the fine, upright figure and the mobile face with hair greying at the temples as having occupied a seat in the third row of the balcony in the old Grand Opera House during the run of Erminie. The elders put it down as spite talk and declared that, personally, they didn’t believe a word of it. The Rev. H. John did rather startle them when he discarded the ministerial black broadcloth for a natty Oxford suit of almost business cut. He was a pioneer in this among the clergy. The congregation soon became accustomed to it; in time, boasted of it as marking their progressiveness.

He had a neat ankle, had the Reverend Scoville, in fine black lisle; a merry eye; a rather grim look about the mouth, as has a man whose life is a secret disappointment. His little daughter worshipped him. He called her Harry. When Harrietta was eleven she was reading Lever and Dickens and Dumas, while other little girls were absorbed in the Elsie Series and The Wide, Wide World. Her father used to deliver his sermons to her in private rehearsal, and her eager mobile face reflected his every written mood.

“Oh, Rev!” she cried one day (it is to be regretted, but that is what she always called him). “Oh, Rev, you should have been an actor!”

He looked at her queerly. “What makes you think so?”

“You’re too thrilling for a minister.” She searched about in her agile mind for fuller means of making her thought clear. “It’s like when Mother cooks rose geranium leaves in her grape jell. She says they gives it a finer flavour, but they don’t really. You can’t taste them for the grapes, so they’re just wasted when they’re so darling and perfumy and just right in the garden.” Her face was pink with earnestness.

“D’you see what I mean, Rev?”

“Yes, I think I see, Harry.”

Then she surprised him. “I’m going on the stage,” she said, “and be a great actress when I’m grown up.”

His heart gave a leap and a lurch. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I want to. And because you didn’t. It’ll be as if you had been an actor instead of a minister–only it’ll be me.”

A bewildering enough statement to any one but the one who made it and the one to whom it was made. She was trying to say that here was the law of compensation working. But she didn’t know this. She had never heard of the law of compensation.

Her gentle mother fought her decision with all the savagery of the gentle.

“You’ll have to run away, Harry,” her father said, sadly. And at twenty-two Harrietta ran. Her objective was New York. Her father did not burden her with advice. He credited her with the intelligence she possessed, but he did overlook her emotionalism, which was where he made his mistake. Just before she left he said: “Now listen, Harry. You’re a good-looking girl, and young. You’ll keep your looks for a long time. You’re not the kind of blonde who’ll get wishy-washy or fat. You’ve got quite a good deal of brunette in you. It crops out in your voice. It’ll help preserve your looks. Don’t marry the first man who asks you or the first man who says he’ll die if you don’t. You’ve got lots of time.”

That kind of advice is a good thing for the young. Two weeks later Harrietta married a man she had met on the train between Evanston and New York. His name was Lawrence Fuller, and Harrietta had gone to school with him in Evanston. She had lost track of him later. She remembered, vaguely, people had said he had gone to New York and was pretty wild. Young as she was and inexperienced, there still was something about his face that warned her. It was pathological, but she knew nothing of pathology. He talked of her and looked at her and spoke, masterfully and yet shyly, of being with her in New York. Harrietta loved the way his hair sprang away from his brow and temples in a clean line. She shoved the thought of his chin out of her mind. His hands touched her a good deal–her shoulder, her knee, her wrist–but so lightly that she couldn’t resent it even if she had wanted to. When they did this, queer little stinging flashes darted through her veins. He said he would die if she did not marry him.

They had two frightful years together and eight years apart before he died, horribly, in the sanatorium whose enormous fees she paid weekly. They had regularly swallowed her earnings at a gulp.

Naturally a life like this develops the comedy sense. You can’t play tragedy while you’re living it. Harrietta served her probation in stock, road companies, one-night stands before she achieved Broadway. In five years her deft comedy method had become distinctive; in ten it was unique. Yet success–as the stage measures it in size of following and dollars of salary–had never been hers.

Harrietta knew she wasn’t a success. She saw actresses younger, older, less adroit, lacking her charm, minus her beauty, featured, starred, heralded. Perhaps she gave her audiences credit for more intelligence than they possessed, and they, unconsciously, resented this. Perhaps if she had read the Elsie Series at eleven, instead of Dickens, she might have been willing to play in that million-dollar success called Gossip. It was offered her. The lead was one of those saccharine parts, vulgar, false, and slyly carnal. She didn’t in the least object to it on the ground of immorality, but the bad writing bothered her. There was, for example, a line in which she was supposed to beat her breast and say: “He’s my mate! He’s my man! And I’m his woman!! I love him, I tell you I–love him!”

“People don’t talk like that,” she told the author, in a quiet aside, during rehearsal. “Especially women. They couldn’t. They use quite commonplace idiom when they’re excited.”

“Thanks,” said the author, elaborately polite. “That’s the big scene in the play. It’ll be a knockout.”

When Harrietta tried to speak these lines in rehearsal she began to giggle and ended in throwing up the ridiculous part. They gave it to that little Frankie Langdon, and the playwright’s prophecy came true. The breast-beating scene was a knockout. It ran for two years in New York alone. Langdon’s sables, chinchillas, ermines, and jewels were always sticking out from the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. When she took curtain calls, Langdon stood with her legs far apart, boyishly, and tossed her head and looked up from beneath her lowered lids and acted surprised and sort of gasped like a fish and bit her lip and mumbled to herself as if overcome. The audience said wasn’t she a shy, young, bewildered darling!

A hard little rip if ever there was one–Langdon–and as shy as a man-eating crocodile.

This sort of sham made Harrietta sick. She, whose very art was that of pretending, hated pretense, affectation, “coy stuff.” This was, perhaps, unfortunate. Your Fatigued Financier prefers the comedy form in which a spade is not only called a spade but a slab of iron for digging up dirt. Harrietta never even pretended to have a cough on an opening night so that the critics, should the play prove a failure, might say: “Harrietta Fuller, though handicapped by a severe cold, still gave her usual brilliant and finished performance in a part not quite worthy of her talents.” No. The plaintive smothered cough, the quick turn aside, the heaving shoulder, the wispy handkerchief were clumsy tools beneath her notice.

There often were long periods of idleness when her soul sickened and her purse grew lean. Long hot summers in New York when awnings, window boxes geranium filled, drinks iced and acidulous, and Ken’s motor car for cooling drives to the beaches failed to soothe the terror in her. Thirty … thirty-two … thirty-four … thirty-six….

She refused to say it. She refused to think of it. She put the number out of her mind and slammed the door on it–on that hideous number beginning with f. At such times she was given to contemplation of her own photographs–and was reassured. Her intelligence told her that retouching varnish, pumice stone, hard pencil, and etching knife had all gone into the photographer’s version of this clear-eyed, fresh-lipped blooming creature gazing back at her so limpidly. But, then, who didn’t need a lot of retouching? Even the youngest of them.

See also  Little Wars by H G Wells

All this. Yet she loved it. The very routine of it appealed to her orderly nature: a routine that, were it widely known, would shatter all those ideas about the large, loose life of the actress. Harrietta Fuller liked to know that at such and such an hour she would be in her dressing room; at such and such an hour on the stage; precisely at another hour she would again be in her dressing room preparing to go home. Then the stage would be darkened. They would be putting the scenery away. She would be crossing the bare stage on her way home. Then she would be home, undressing, getting ready for bed, reading. She liked a cup of clear broth at night, or a drink of hot cocoa. It soothed and rested her. Besides, one is hungry after two and a half hours of high-tensioned, nerve-exhausting work. She was in bed usually by twelve-thirty.

“But you can’t fall asleep like a dewy babe in my kind of job,” she used to explain. “People wonder why actresses lie in bed until noon, or nearly. They have to, to get as much sleep as a stenographer or a clerk or a book-keeper. At midnight I’m all keyed up and over-stimulated, and as wide awake as an all-night taxi driver. It takes two solid hours of reading to send me bye-bye.”

The world did not interest itself in that phase of Harrietta’s life. Neither did it find fascination in her domestic side. Harrietta did a good deal of tidying and dusting and redding up in her own two-room apartment, so high and bright and spotless. She liked to cook, too, and was expert at it. Not for her those fake pictures of actresses and opera stars in chiffon tea gowns and satin slippers and diamond chains cooking “their favourite dish of spaghetti and creamed mushrooms,” and staring out at you bright-eyed and palpably unable to tell the difference between salt and paprika. Harrietta liked the ticking of a clock in a quiet room; oven smells; concocting new egg dishes; washing out lacy things in warm soapsuds. A throw-back, probably, to her grandmother Scoville.

The worst feature of a person like Harrietta is, as you already have discovered with some impatience, that one goes on and on, talking about her. And the listener at last breaks out with: “This is all very interesting, but I feel as if I know her now. What then?”

Then the thing to do is to go serenely on telling, for example, how the young thing in Harrietta Fuller’s company invariably came up to her at the first rehearsal and said tremulously: “Miss Fuller, I–you won’t mind–I just want to tell you how proud I am to be one of your company. Playing with you. You’ve been my ideal ever since I was a little g–” then, warned by a certain icy mask slipping slowly over the brightness of Harrietta’s features–“ever so long, but I never even hoped—-“

These young things always learned an amazing lot from watching the deft, sure strokes of Harrietta’s craftsmanship. She was kind to them, too. Encouraged them. Never hogged a scene that belonged to them. Never cut their lines. Never patronized them. They usually played ingenue parts, and their big line was that uttered on coming into a room looking for Harrietta. It was: “Ah, there you are!”

How can you really know Harrietta unless you realize the deference with which she was treated in her own little sphere? If the world at large did not acclaim her, there was no lack of appreciation on the part of her fellow workers. They knew artistry when they saw it. Though she had never attained stardom, she still had the distinction that usually comes only to a star back stage. Unless she actually was playing in support of a first-magnitude star, her dressing room was marked “A.” Other members of the company did not drop into her dressing room except by invitation. That room was neat to the point of primness. A square of white coarse sheeting was spread on the floor, under the chair before her dressing table, to gather up dust and powder. It was regularly shaken or changed. There were always flowers–often a single fine rose in a slender vase. On her dressing table, in a corner, you were likely to find three or four volumes–perhaps The Amenities of Book-Collecting; something or other of Max Beerbohm’s; a book of verse (not Amy Lowell’s).

These were not props designed to impress the dramatic critic who might drop in for one of those personal little theatrical calls to be used in next Sunday’s “Chats in the Wings.” They were there because Harrietta liked them and read them between acts. She had a pretty wit of her own. The critics liked to talk with her. Even George Jean Hathem, whose favourite pastime was to mangle the American stage with his pen and hold its bleeding, gaping fragments up for the edification of Budapest, Petrograd, Vienna, London, Berlin, Paris, and Stevens Point, Wis., said that five minutes of Harrietta Fuller’s conversation was worth a lifetime of New York stage dialogue. For that matter I think that Mr. Beerbohm himself would not have found a talk with her altogether dull or profitless.

The leading man generally made love to her in an expert, unaggressive way. A good many men had tried to make love to her at one time or another. They didn’t get on very well. Harrietta never went to late suppers. Some of them complained: “When you try to make love to her she laughs at you!” She wasn’t really laughing at them. She was laughing at what she knew about life. Occasionally men now married, and living dully content in the prim suburban smugness of Pelham or New Rochelle, boasted of past friendship with her, wagging their heads doggishly. “Little Fuller! I used to know her well.”

They lied.

Not that she didn’t count among her friends many men. She dined with them and they with her. They were writers and critics, lawyers and doctors, engineers and painters. Actors almost never. They sent her books and flowers; valued her opinion, delighted in her conversation, wished she wouldn’t sometimes look at them so quizzically. And if they didn’t always comprehend her wit, they never failed to appreciate the contour of her face, where the thoughtful brow was contradicted by the lovely little nose, and both were drowned in the twin wells of the wide-apart, misleadingly limpid eyes that lay ensnaringly between.

“Your eyes!” these gentlemen sometimes stammered, “the lashes are reflected in them like ferns edging a pool.”

“Yes. The mascara’s good for them. You’d think all that black sticky stuff I have put on, would hurt them, but it really makes them grow, I believe. Sometimes I even use a burnt match, and yet it—-“

“Damn your burnt matches! I’m talking about your lashes.”

“So am I.” She would open her eyes wide in surprise, and the lashes could almost be said to wave at him tantalizingly, like fairy fans. (He probably wished he could have thought of that.)

Ken never talked to her about her lashes. Ken thought she was the most beauteous, witty, intelligent woman in the world, but he had never told her so, and she found herself wishing he would. Ken was forty-one and Knew About Etchings. He knew about a lot of other things, too. Difficult, complex things like Harrietta Fuller, for example. He had to do with some intricate machine or other that was vital to printing, and he was perfecting something connected with it or connecting something needed for its perfection that would revolutionize the thing the machine now did (whatever it was). Harrietta refused to call him an inventor. She said it sounded so impecunious. They had known each other for six years. When she didn’t feel like talking he didn’t say: “What’s the matter?” He never told her that women had no business monkeying with stocks or asked her what they called that stuff her dress was made of, or telephoned before noon. Twice a year he asked her to marry him, presenting excellent reasons. His name was Carrigan. You’d like him.

“When I marry,” Harrietta would announce, “which will be never, it will be the only son of a rich iron king from Duluth, Minnesota. And I’ll go there to live in an eighteen-room mansion and pluck roses for the breakfast room.”

“There are few roses in Duluth,” said Ken, “to speak of. And no breakfast rooms. You breakfast in the dining room, and in the winter you wear flannel underwear and galoshes.”

“California, then. And he can be the son of a fruit king. I’m not narrow.”

Harrietta was thirty-seven and a half when there came upon her a great fear. It had been a wretchedly bad season. Two failures. The rent on her two-room apartment in Fifty-sixth Street jumped from one hundred and twenty-five, which she could afford, to two hundred a month, which she couldn’t. Mary–Irish Mary–her personal maid, left her in January. Personal maids are one of the superstitions of the theatrical profession, and an actress of standing is supposed to go hungry rather than maidless.

“Why don’t you fire Irish Mary?” Ken had asked Harrietta during a period of stringency.

See also  The Story of Prince Sobur

“I can’t afford to.”

Ken understood, but you may not. Harrietta would have made it clear. “Any actress who earns more than a hundred a week is supposed to have a maid in her dressing room. No one knows why, but it’s true. I remember in The Small-Town Girl I wore the same gingham dress throughout three acts, but I was paying Mary twenty a week just the same. If I hadn’t some one in the company would have told some one in another company that Harrietta Fuller was broke. It would have seeped through the director to the manager, and next time they offered me a part they’d cut my salary. It’s absurd, but there it is. A vicious circle.”

Irish Mary’s reason for leaving Harrietta was a good one. It would have to be, for she was of that almost extinct species, the devoted retainer. Irish Mary wasn’t the kind of maid one usually encounters back stage. No dapper, slim, black-and-white pert miss, with a wisp of apron and a knowledgeous eye. An ample, big-hipped, broad-bosomed woman with an apron like a drop curtain and a needle knack that kept Harrietta mended, be-ribboned, beruffled, and exquisite from her garters to her coat hangers. She had been around the theatre for twenty-five years, and her thick, deft fingers had served a long line of illustrious ladies–Corinne Foster, Gertrude Bennett, Lucille Varney. She knew all the shades of grease paint from Flesh to Sallow Old Age, and if you gained an ounce she warned you.

Her last name was Lesom, but nobody remembered it until she brought forward a daughter of fifteen with the request that she be given a job; anything–walk-on, extra, chorus. Lyddy, she called her. The girl seldom spoke. She was extremely stupid, but a marvellous mimic, and pretty beyond belief; fragile, and yet with something common about her even in her fragility. Her wrists had a certain flat angularity that bespoke a peasant ancestry, but she had a singular freshness and youthful bloom. The line of her side face from the eye socket to the chin was a delicious thing that curved with the grace of a wing. The high cheekbone sloped down so that the outline was heart-shaped. There were little indentations at the corners of her mouth. She had eyes singularly clear, like a child’s, and a voice so nasal, so strident, so dreadful that when she parted her pretty lips and spoke, the sound shocked you like a peacock’s raucous screech.

Harrietta had managed to get a bit for her here, a bit for her there, until by the time she was eighteen she was giving a fairly creditable performance in practically speechless parts. It was dangerous to trust her even with an “Ah, there you are!” line. The audience, startled, was so likely to laugh.

At about this point she vanished, bound for Hollywood and the movies. “She’s the little fool, just,” said Irish Mary. “What’ll she be wantin’ with the movies, then, an’ her mother connected with the theayter for years an’ all, and her you might say brought up in it?”

But she hadn’t been out there a year before the world knew her as Lydia Lissome. Starting as an extra girl earning twenty-five a week or less, she had managed, somehow, to get the part of Betty in the screen version of The Magician, probably because she struck the director as being the type; or perhaps her gift of mimicry had something to do with it, and the youth glow that was in her face. At any rate, when the picture was finished and released, no one was more surprised than Lyddy at the result. They offered her three thousand a week on a three-year contract. She wired her mother, but Irish Mary wired back: “I don’t believe a word of it hold out for five am coming.” She left for the Coast. Incidentally, she got the five for Lyddy. Lyddy signed her name to the contract–Lydia Lissome–in a hand that would have done discredit to an eleven-year-old.

Harrietta told Ken about it, not without some bitterness: “Which only proves one can’t be too careful about picking one’s parents. If my father had been a hod carrier instead of a minister of the Gospel and a darling old dreamer, I’d be earning five thousand a week, too.”

They were dining together in Harrietta’s little sitting room so high up and quiet and bright with its cream enamel and its log fire. Almost one entire wall of that room was window, facing south, and framing such an Arabian Nights panorama as only a New York eleventh-story window, facing south, can offer.

Ken lifted his right eyebrow, which was a way he had when being quizzical. “What would you do with five thousand a week, just supposing?”

“I’d do all the vulgar things that other people do who have five thousand a week.”

“You wouldn’t enjoy them. You don’t care for small dogs or paradise aigrettes or Italian villas in Connecticut or diamond-studded cigarette holders or plush limousines or butlers.” He glanced comprehensively about the little room–at the baby grand whose top was pleasantly littered with photographs and bonbon dishes and flower vases; at the smart little fire snapping in the grate; at the cheerful reds and blues and ochres and sombre blues and purples and greens of the books in the open bookshelves; at the squat clock on the mantelshelf; at the gorgeous splashes of black and gold glimpsed through the many-paned window. “You’ve got everything you really want right here”–his gesture seemed, somehow, to include himself–“if you only knew it.”

“You talk,” snapped Harrietta, “as the Rev. H. John Scoville used to.” She had never said a thing like that before. “I’m sick of what they call being true to my art. I’m tired of having last year’s suit relined, even if it is smart enough to be good this year. I’m sick of having the critics call me an intelligent comedienne who is unfortunate in her choice of plays. Some day”–a little flash of fright was there–“I’ll pick up the Times and see myself referred to as ‘that sterling actress.’ Then I’ll know I’m through.”

“You!”

“Tell me I’m young, Ken. Tell me I’m young and beautiful and bewitching.”

“You’re young and beautiful and bewitching.”

“Ugh! And yet they say the Irish have the golden tongues.”

Two months later Harrietta had an offer to go into pictures. It wasn’t her first, but it undeniably was the best. The sum offered per week was what she might usually expect to get per month in a successful stage play. To accept the offer meant the Coast. She found herself having a test picture taken and trying to believe the director who said it was good; found herself expatiating on the brightness, quietness, and general desirability of the eleventh-floor apartment in Fifty-sixth Street to an acquaintance who was seeking a six months’ city haven for the summer.

“She’ll probably ruin my enamel dressing table with toilet water and ring my piano top with wet glasses and spatter grease on the kitchenette wall. But I’ll be earning a million,” Harrietta announced, recklessly, “or thereabouts. Why should I care?”

She did care, though, as a naturally neat and thrifty woman cares for her household goods which have, through years of care of them and association with them, become her household gods. The clock on the mantel wasn’t a clock, but a plump friend with a white smiling face and a soothing tongue; the low, ample davenport wasn’t a davenport only, but a soft bosom that pillowed her; that which lay spread shimmering beneath her window was not New York alone–it was her View. To a woman like this, letting her apartment furnished is like farming out her child to strangers.

She had told her lessee about her laundress and her cleaning woman and how to handle the balky faucet that controlled the shower. She had said good-bye to Ken entirely surrounded by his books, magazines, fruit, and flowers. She was occupying a Pullman drawing room paid for by the free-handed filmers. She was crossing farm lands, plains, desert. She was wondering if all those pink sweaters and white flannel trousers outside the Hollywood Hotel were there for the same reason that she was. She was surveying a rather warm little room shaded by a dense tree whose name she did not know. She was thinking it felt a lot like her old trouping days, when her telephone tinkled and a voice announced Mrs. Lissome. Lissome? Lesam. Irish Mary, of course. Harrietta’s maid, engaged for the trip, had failed her at the last moment. Now her glance rested on the two massive trunks and the litter of smart, glittering bags that strewed the room. A relieved look crept into her eyes. A knock at the door. A resplendent figure was revealed at its opening. The look in Harrietta’s eyes vanished.

Irish Mary looked like the mother of a girl who was earning five thousand a week. She was marcelled, silk-clad, rustling, gold-meshed, and, oh, how real in spite of it all as she beamed upon the dazzled Harrietta.

“Out with ye!” trumpeted this figure, brushing aside Harrietta’s proffered chair. “There’ll be no stayin’ here for you. You’re coming along with me, then, bag and baggage.” She glanced sharply about. “Where’s your maid, dearie?”

“Disappointed me at the last minute. I’ll have to get someone—-“

“We’ve plenty. You’re coming up to our place.”

“But, Mary, I can’t. I couldn’t. I’m tired. This room—-“

“A hole. Wait till you see The Place. Gardens and breakfast rooms and statues and fountains and them Jap boys runnin’ up and down like mice. We rented it for a year from that Goya Ciro. She’s gone back East. How she ever made good in pictures I don’t know, and her face like a hot-water bag for expression. Lyddy’s going to build next year. They’re drawin’ up the plans now. The Place’ll be nothin’ compared to it when it’s finished. Put on your hat. The boys’ll see to your stuff here.”

See also  The Waking Of Helen by L. M. Montgomery

“I can’t. I couldn’t. You’re awfully kind, Mary dear—-“

Mary dear was at the telephone. “Mrs. Lissome. That’s who. Send up that Jap boy for the bags.”

Mrs. Lissome’s name and Mrs. Lissome’s commands apparently carried heavily in Hollywood. A uniformed Jap appeared immediately as though summoned by a genie. The bags seemed to spring to him, so quickly was he enveloped by their glittering surfaces. He was off with the burdens, invisible except for his gnomelike face and his sturdy bow legs in their footman’s boots.

“I can’t,” said Harrietta, feebly, for the last time. It was her introduction to the topsy-turvy world into which she had come. She felt herself propelled down the stairs by Irish Mary, who wasn’t Irish Mary any more, but a Force whose orders were obeyed. In the curved drive outside the Hollywood Hotel the little Jap was stowing the last of the bags into the great blue car whose length from nose to tail seemed to span the hotel frontage. At the wheel, rigid, sat a replica of the footman.

Irish Mary with a Japanese chauffeur. Irish Mary with a Japanese footman. Irish Mary with a great glittering car that was as commodious as the average theatre dressing room.

“Get in, dearie. Lyddy’s using the big car to-day. They’re out on location. Shootin’ the last of Devils and Men.”

Harrietta was saying to herself: “Don’t be a nasty snob, Harry. This is a different world. Think of the rotten time Alice would have had in Wonderland if she hadn’t been broad-minded. Take it as it comes.”

Irish Mary was talking as they sped along through the hot white Hollywood sunshine…. “Stay right with us as long as you like, dearie, but if after you’re workin’ you want a place of your own, I know of just the thing you can rent furnished, and a Jap gardener and house man and cook right on the places besides—-“

“But I’m not signed for five thousand a week, like Lydia,” put in Harrietta.

“I know what you’re signed for. ‘Twas me put ’em up to it, an’ who else! ‘Easy money,’ I says, ‘an’ why shouldn’t she be gettin’ some of it?’ Lyddy spoke to Gans about it. What Lyddy says goes. She’s a good girl, Lyddy is, an’ would you believe the money an’ all hasn’t gone to her brains, though what with workin’ like a horse an’ me to steady her, an’ shrewder than the lawyers themself, if I do say it, she ain’t had much chance. And here’s The Place.”

And here was The Place. Sundials, rose gardens, gravel paths, dwarf trees, giant trees, fountains, swimming pools, tennis courts, goldfish, statues, verandas, sleeping porches, awnings, bird baths, pergolas.

Inside more Japs. Maids. Rooms furnished like the interior of movie sets that Harrietta remembered having seen. A bedroom, sitting room, dressing room, and bath all her own in one wing of the great white palace, only one of thousands of great white palaces scattered through the hills of Hollywood. The closet for dresses, silk-lined and scented, could have swallowed whole her New York bedroom.

“Lay down,” said Irish Mary, “an’ get easy. Lyddy won’t be home till six if she’s early, an’ she’ll prob’bly be in bed by nine now they’re rushin’ the end of the picture, an’ she’s got to be on the lot made up by nine or sooner.”

“Nine–in the morning!”

“Well, sure! You soon get used to it. They’ve got to get all the daylight they can, an’ times the fog’s low earlier, or they’d likely start at seven or eight. You look a little beat, dearie. Lay down. I’ll have you unpacked while we’re eatin’.”

But Harrietta did not lie down. She went to the window. Below a small army of pigmy gardeners were doing expert things to flower beds and bushes that already seemed almost shamelessly prolific. Harrietta thought, suddenly, of her green-painted flower boxes outside the eleventh-story south window in the New York flat. Outside her window here a great scarlet hibiscus stuck its tongue out at her. Harrietta stuck her tongue out at it, childishly, and turned away. She liked a certain reticence in flowers, as in everything else. She sat down at the desk, took up a sheet of lavender and gold paper and the great lavender plumed pen. The note she wrote to Ken was the kind of note that only Ken would understand, unless you’ve got into the way of reading it once a year or so, too:

Ken, dear, I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole, and yet–and yet–it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life.

Two weeks later, when she had begun to get used to her new work, her new life, the strange hours, people, jargon, she wrote him another cryptic note:

Alice–“Well, in our country you’d generally get to somewhere else–if you ran very fast for a long time, as I’ve been doing.”

Red Queen–“Here it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

In those two weeks things had happened rather breathlessly. Harrietta had moved from the splendours of The Place to her own rose-embowered bungalow. Here, had she wanted to do any casement work with a white rose, like that earlier heroine, she could easily have managed it had not the early morning been so feverishly occupied in reaching the lot in time to be made up by nine. She soon learned the jargon. “The lot” meant the studio in which she was working, and its environs. “We’re going to shoot you this morning,” meant that she would be needed in to-day’s scenes. Often she was in bed by eight at night, so tired that she could not sleep. She wondered what the picture was about. She couldn’t make head or tail of it.

They were filming J. N. Gardner’s novel, Romance of Arcady, but they had renamed it Let’s Get a Husband. The heroine in the novel was the young wife of twenty-seven who had been married five years. This was Harrietta’s part. In the book there had been a young girl, too–a saccharine miss of seventeen who was the minor love interest. This was Lydia Lissome’s part. Slowly it dawned on Harrietta that things had been nightmarishly tampered with in the film version, and that the change in name was the least of the indignities to which the novel had been subjected.

It took Harrietta some time to realize this because they were not taking the book scenes in their sequence. They took them according to light, convenience, location. Indoor scenes were taken in one group, so that the end of the story might often be the first to be filmed.

For a week Harrietta was dressed, made up, and ready for work at nine o’clock, and for a week she wasn’t used in a single scene. The hours of waiting made her frantic. The sun was white hot. Her little dressing room was stifling. She hated her face with its dead-white mask and blue-lidded eyes. When, finally, her time came she found that after being dressed and ready from nine until five-thirty daily she was required, at 4:56 on the sixth day, to cross the set, open a door, stop, turn, appear to be listening, and recross the set to meet someone entering from the opposite side. This scene, trivial as it appeared, was rehearsed seven times before the director was satisfied with it.

The person for whom she had paused, turned, and crossed was Lydia Lissome. And Lydia Lissome, it soon became evident, had the lead in this film. In the process of changing from novel to scenario, the Young Wife had become a rather middle-aged wife, and the Flapper of seventeen had become the heroine. And Harrietta Fuller, erstwhile actress of youthful comedy parts for the stage, found herself moving about in black velvet and pearls and a large plumed fan as a background for the white ruffles and golden curls and sunny scenes in which Lydia Lissome held the camera’s eye.

For years Harrietta Fuller’s entrance during a rehearsal always had created a little stir among the company. This one rose to give her a seat; that one made her a compliment; Sam Klein, the veteran director, patted her cheek and said: “You’re going to like this part, Miss Fuller. And they’re going to eat it up. You see.” The author bent over her in mingled nervousness and deference and admiration. The Young Thing who was to play the ingenue part said shyly: “Oh, Miss Fuller, may I tell you how happy I am to be playing with you? You’ve been my ideal, etc.”

And now Harrietta Fuller, in black velvet, was the least important person on the lot. No one was rude to her. Everyone was most kind, in fact. Kind! To Harrietta Fuller! She found that her face felt stiff and expressionless after long hours of waiting, waiting, and an elderly woman who was playing a minor part showed her how to overcome this by stretching her face, feature for feature, as a dancer goes through limbering exercises in the wings. The woman had been a trouper in the old days of one-night stands. Just before she stepped in front of the camera you saw her drawing down her face grotesquely, stretching her mouth to form an oval, dropping her jaw, twisting her lips to the right, to the left, rolling her eyes round and round. It was a perfect lesson in facial calisthenics, and Harrietta was thankful for it. Harrietta was interested in such things–interested in them, and grateful for what they taught her.

See also  His Father’s Son by Edith Wharton

She told herself that she didn’t mind the stir that Lydia Lissome made when she was driven up in the morning in her great blue limousine with the two Japs sitting so straight and immobile in front, like twin Nipponese gods. But she did. She told herself she didn’t mind when the director said: “Miss Fuller, if you’ll just watch Miss Lissome work. She has perfect picture tempo.” But she did. The director was the new-fashioned kind, who spoke softly, rehearsed you almost privately, never bawled through a megaphone. A slim young man in a white shirt and flannel trousers and a pair of Harvard-looking glasses. Everybody was young. That was it! Not thirty, or thirty-two, or thirty-four, or thirty-seven, but young. Terribly, horribly, actually young. That was it.

Harrietta Fuller was too honest not to face this fact squarely. When she went to a Thursday-night dance at the Hollywood Hotel she found herself in a ballroom full of slim, pliant, corsetless young things of eighteen, nineteen, twenty. The men, with marcelled hair and slim feet and sunburnt faces, were mere boys. As juveniles on the stage they might have been earning seventy-five or one hundred or one hundred and fifty dollars a week. Here they owned estates, motor cars in fleets, power boats; had secretaries, valets, trainers. Their technique was perfect and simple. They knew their work. When they kissed a girl, or entered a room, or gazed after a woman, or killed a man in the presence of a woman (while working) they took off their hats. Turned slowly, and took off their hats. They were mannerly, too, outside working hours. They treated Harrietta with boyish politeness–when they noticed her at all.

“Oh, won’t you have this chair, Miss Fuller? I didn’t notice you were standing.”

They didn’t notice she was standing!

“What are you doing, Miss–ah–Fuller? Yes, you did say Fuller. Names—- Are you doing a dowager bit?”

“Dowager bit?”

“I see. You’re new to the game, aren’t you? I saw you working to-day. We always speak of these black-velvet parts as dowager bits. Just excuse me. I see a friend of mine—-” The friend of mine would be a willow wand with golden curls, and what Harrietta rather waspishly called a Gunga Din costume. She referred to that Kipling description in which:

The uniform ‘e wore Was nothin’ much before, An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind.

“They’re wearing them that way here in Hollywood,” she wrote Ken. She wrote Ken a good many things. But there were, too, a good many things she did not write him.

At the end of the week she would look at her check–and take small comfort. “You’ve got everything you really want right here,” Ken had said, “if you only knew it.”

If only she had known it.

Well, she knew it now. Now, frightened, bewildered, resentful. Thirty-seven. Why, thirty-seven was old in Hollywood. Not middle-aged, or getting on, or well preserved, but old. Even Lydia Lissome, at twenty, always made them put one thickness of chiffon over the camera’s lens before she would let them take the close-ups. Harrietta thought of that camera now as a cruel Cyclops from whose hungry eye nothing escaped–wrinkles, crow’s-feet–nothing.

They had been working two months on the picture. It was almost finished. Midsummer. Harrietta’s little bungalow garden was ablaze with roses, dahlias, poppies, asters, strange voluptuous flowers whose names she did not know. The roses, plucked and placed in water, fell apart, petal by petal, two hours afterward. From her veranda she saw the Sierra Madre range and the foothills. She thought of her “unexcelled view of Park” which could be had by flattening one ear and the side of your face against the window jamb.

The sun came up, hard and bright and white, day after day. Hard and white and hot and dry. “Like a woman,” Harrietta thought, “who wears a red satin gown all the time. You’d wish she’d put on gingham just once, for a change.” She told herself that she was parched for a walk up Riverside Drive in a misty summer rain, the water sloshing in her shoes.

“Happy, my ducky?” Irish Mary would say, beaming upon her.

“Perfectly,” from Harrietta.

“It’s time, too. Real money you’re pullin’ down here. And a paradise if ever there was one.”

“I notice, though, that as soon as they’ve completed a picture they take the Overland back to New York and make dates with each other for lunch at the Claridge, like matinee girls.”

Irish Mary flapped a negligent palm. “Ah, well, change is what we all want, now and then.” She looked at Harrietta sharply. “You’re not wantin’ to go back, are ye?”

“N-no,” faltered Harrietta. Then, brazenly, hotly: “Yes, yes!” ending, miserably, with: “But my contract. Six months.”

“You can break it, if you’re fool enough, when they’ve finished this picture, though why you should want to—-” Irish Mary looked as belligerent as her kindly Celtic face could manage.

But it was not until the last week of the filming of Let’s get a Husband that Harrietta came to her and said passionately: “I do! I do!”

“Do what?” Irish Mary asked, blankly.

“Do want to break my contract. You said I could after this picture.”

“Sure you can. They hired you because I put Lyddy up to askin’ them to. I’d thought you’d be pleased for the big money an’ all. There’s no pleasin’ some.”

“It isn’t that. You don’t understand. To-day—-“

“Well, what’s happened to-day that’s so turrible, then?”

But how could Harrietta tell her? “To-day—-” she began again, faltered, stopped. To-day, you must know, this had happened: It was the Big Scene of the film. Lydia Lissome, in black lace nightgown and ermine negligee, her hair in marcel waves, had just been “shot” for it.

“Now then, Miss Fuller,” said young Garvey, the director, “you come into the garden, see? You’ve noticed Joyce go out through the French window and you suspect she’s gone to meet Talbot. We show just a flash of you looking out of the drawing-room windows into the garden. Then you just glance over your shoulder to where your husband is sitting in the library, reading, and you slip away, see? Then we jump to where you find them in the garden. Wait a minute”–He consulted the sheaf of typewritten sheets in his hand–“yeh–here it says: ‘Joyce is keeping her tryst under the great oak in the garden with her lover.’ Yeh. Wait a minute … ‘tryst under tree with’–well, you come quickly forward–down to about here–and you say: ‘Ah, there you are!’”

Harrietta looked at him for a long, long minute. Her lips were parted. Her breath came quickly. She spoke: “I say–what?”

“You say: ‘Ah, there you are.’”

“Never!” said Harrietta Fuller, and brought her closed fist down on her open palm for emphasis. “Never!”

* * * * *

It was August when she again was crossing desert, plains, and farmlands. It was the tail-end of a dusty, hot, humid August in New York when Ken stood at the station, waiting. As he came forward, raising one arm, her own arm shot forward in quick protest, even while her glad eyes held his.

“Don’t take it off!”

“What off?”

“Your hat. Don’t take it off. Kiss me–but leave your hat on.”

She clutched his arm. She looked up at him. They were in the taxi bound for Fifty-sixth Street. “She moved? She’s out? She’s gone? You told her I’d pay her anything–a bonus—-” Then, as he nodded, she leaned back, relaxed. Something in her face prompted him.

“You’re young and beautiful and bewitching,” said Ken.

“Keep on saying it,” pleaded Harrietta. “Make a chant of it.” …

Sam Klein, the veteran, was the first to greet her when she entered the theatre at that first September rehearsal. The company was waiting for her. She wasn’t late. She had just pleasantly escaped being unpunctual. She came in, cool, slim, electric. Then she hesitated. For the fraction of a second she hesitated. Then Sam Klein greeted her: “Company’s waiting, Miss Fuller, if you’re ready.” And the leading man came forward, a flower in his buttonhole, carefully tailored and slightly yellow as a leading man of forty should be at 10:30 A. M. “How wonderful you’re looking, Harrietta,” he said.

Sam Klein took her aside. “You’re going to make the hit of your career in this part, Miss Fuller. Yessir, dear, the hit of your career. You mark my words.”

“Don’t you think,” stammered Harrietta–“don’t you think it will take someone–someone–younger–to play the part?”

“Younger than what?”

“Than I.”

Sam Klein stared. Then he laughed. “Younger than you! Say, listen, do you want to get the Gerry Society after me?”

And as he turned away a Young Thing with worshipful eyes crept up to Harrietta’s side and said tremulously: “Oh, Miss Fuller, this is my first chance on Broadway, and may I tell you how happy I am to be playing with you? You’ve been my ideal ever since I was a–for a long, long time.”

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *