Story type: Literature
When you try to do a story about three people like Sid Hahn and Mizzi Markis and Wallie Ascher you find yourself pawing around among the personalities helplessly. For the three of them are what is known in newspaper parlance as national figures. One n.f. is enough for any short story. Three would swamp a book. It’s like one of those plays advertised as having an all-star cast. By the time each luminary has come on, and been greeted, and done his twinkling the play has faded into the background. You can’t see the heavens for the stars.
Surely Sid Hahn, like the guest of honour at a dinner, needs no introduction. And just as surely will he be introduced. He has been described elsewhere and often; perhaps nowhere more concisely than on Page 16, paragraph two, of a volume that shall be nameless, though quoted, thus:
“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, 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.”
Not that that covers him. No one paragraph could. You turn a fine diamond this way and that, and as its facets catch the light you say, “It’s scarlet! No–it’s blue! No–rose!–orange!–lilac!–no–“
That was Sid Hahn.
I suppose he never really sat for a photograph and yet you saw his likeness in all the magazines. He was snapped on the street, and in the theatre, and even up in his famous library-study-office on the sixth and top floor of the Thalia Theatre Building. Usually with a fat black cigar–unlighted–in one corner of his commodious mouth. Everyone interested in things theatrical (and whom does that not include!) knew all about Sid Hahn–and nothing. He had come, a boy, from one of those middle-western towns with a high-falutin Greek name. Parthenon, Ohio, or something incredible like that. No one knows how he first approached the profession which he was to dominate in America. There’s no record of his having asked for a job in a theatre, and received it. He oozed into it, indefinably, and moved with it, and became a part of it and finally controlled it. Satellites, fur-collared and pseudo-successful, trailing in his wake, used to talk loudly of I-knew-him-when. They all lied. It had been Augustin Daly, dead these many years, who had first recognized in this boy the genius for discovering and directing genius. Daly was, at that time, at the zenith of his career–managing, writing, directing, producing. He fired the imagination of this stocky, gargoyle-faced boy with the luminous eyes and the humorous mouth. I don’t know that Sid Hahn, hanging about the theatre in every kind of menial capacity, ever said to himself in so many words:
“I’m going to be what he is. I’m going to concentrate on it. I won’t let anything or anybody interfere with it. Nobody knows what I’m going to be. But I know…. And you’ve got to be selfish. You’ve got to be selfish.”
Of course no one ever really made a speech like that to himself, even in the Horatio Alger books. But if the great ambition and determination running through the whole fibre of his being could have been crystallized into spoken words they would have sounded like that.
By the time he was forty-five he had discovered more stars than Copernicus. They were not all first-magnitude twinklers. Some of them even glowed so feebly that you could see their light only when he stood behind them, the steady radiance of his genius shining through. But taken as a whole they made a brilliant constellation, furnishing much of the illumination for the brightest thoroughfare in the world.
He had never married. There are those who say that he had had an early love affair, but that he had sworn not to marry until he had achieved what he called success. And by that time it had been too late. It was as though the hot flame of ambition had burned out all his other passions. Later they say he was responsible for more happy marriages contracted by people who did not know that he was responsible for them than a popular east-side shadchen. He grew a little tired, perhaps, of playing with make-believe stage characters, and directing them, so he began to play with real ones, like God. But always kind.
No woman can resist making love to a man as indifferent as Sid Hahn appeared to be. They all tried their wiles on him: the red-haired ingenues, the blonde soubrettes, the stately leading ladies, the war horses, the old-timers, the ponies, the prima donnas. He used to sit there in his great, luxurious, book-lined inner office, smiling and inscrutable as a plump joss-house idol while the fair ones burnt incense and made offering of shew-bread. Figuratively, he kicked over the basket of shew-bread, and of the incense said, “Take away that stuff! It smells!”
Not that he hated women. He was afraid of them, at first. Then, from years of experience with the femininity of the theatre, not nearly afraid enough. So, early, he had locked that corner of his mind, and had thrown away the key. When, years after, he broke in the door, lo! (as they say when an elaborate figure of speech is being used) lo! the treasures therein had turned to dust and ashes.
It was he who had brought over from Paris to the American stage the famous Renee Paterne of the incorrigible eyes. She made a fortune and swept the country with her song about those delinquent orbs. But when she turned them on Hahn, in their first interview in his office, he regarded her with what is known as a long, level look. She knew at that time not a word of English. Sid Hahn was ignorant of French. He said, very low, and with terrible calm to Wallie Ascher who was then acting as a sort of secretary, “Wallie, can’t you do something to make her stop rolling her eyes around at me like that? It’s awful! She makes me think of those heads you shy balls at, out at Coney. Take away my ink-well.”
Renee had turned swiftly to Wallie and had said something to him in French. Sid Hahn cocked a quick ear. “What’s that she said?”
“She says,” translated the obliging and gifted Wallie, “that monsieur is a woman-hater.”
“My God! I thought she didn’t understand English!”
“She doesn’t. But she’s a woman. Not only that, she’s a French woman. They don’t need to know a language to understand it.”
“Where did you get that, h’m? That wasn’t included in your Berlitz course, was it?”
Wallie Ascher had grinned–that winning flash lighting up his dark, keen face. “No. I learned that in another school.”
Wallie Ascher’s early career in the theatre, if repeated here, might almost be a tiresome repetition of Hahn’s beginning. And what Augustin Daly had been to Sid Hahn’s imagination and ambition, Sid Hahn was to Wallie’s. Wallie, though, had been born to the theatre–if having a tumbler for a father and a prestidigitator’s foil for a mother can be said to be a legitimate entrance into the world of the theatre.
He had been employed about the old Thalia for years before Hahn noticed him. In the beginning he was a spindle-legged office boy in the upstairs suite of the firm of Hahn & Lohman, theatrical producers; the kind of office-boy who is addicted to shrill, clear whistling unless very firmly dealt with. No one in the outer office realized how faultless, how rhythmic were the arpeggios and cadences that issued from those expertly puckered lips. There was about his performance an unerring precision. As you listened you felt that his ascent to the inevitable high note was a thing impossible of achievement. Up–up–up he would go, while you held your breath in suspense. And then he took the high note–took it easily, insouciantly–held it, trilled it, tossed it.
“Now, look here,” Miss Feldman would snap–Miss Feldman of the outer office typewriter–“look here, you kid. Any more of that bird warbling and you go back to the woods where you belong. This ain’t a–a–“
“Aviary,” suggested Wallie, almost shyly.
Miss Feldman glared. “How did you know that word?”
“I don’t know,” helplessly. “But it’s the word, isn’t it?”
Miss Feldman turned back to her typewriter. “You’re too smart for your age, you are.”
“I know it,” Wallie had agreed, humbly.
There’s no telling where or how he learned to play the piano. He probably never did learn. He played it, though, as he whistled–brilliantly. No doubt it was as imitative and as unconscious, too, as his whistling had been. They say he didn’t know one note from another, and doesn’t to this day.
At twenty, when he should have been in love with at least three girls, he had fixed in his mind an image, a dream. And it bore no resemblance to twenty’s accepted dreams. At that time he was living in one room (rear) of a shabby rooming house in Thirty-ninth Street. And this was the dream: By the time he was–well, long before he was thirty–he would have a bachelor apartment with a Jap, Saki. Saki was the perfect servant, noiseless, unobtrusive, expert. He saw little dinners just for four–or, at the most, six. And Saki, white-coated, deft, sliding hot plates when plates should be hot; cold plates when plates should be cold. Then, other evenings, alone, when he wanted to see no one–when, in a silken lounging robe (over faultless dinner clothes, of course, and wearing the kind of collar you see in the back of the magazines) he would say, “That will do, Saki.” Then, all evening, he would play softly to himself those little, intimate, wistful Schumanny things in the firelight with just one lamp glowing softly–almost sombrely–at the side of the piano (grand).
His first real meeting with Sid Hahn had had much to do with the fixing of this image. Of course he had seen Hahn hundreds of times in the office and about the theatre. They had spoken, too, many times. Hahn called him vaguely, “Heh, boy!” but he grew to know him later as Wallie. From errand-boy, office-boy, call-boy he had become, by that time, a sort of unofficial assistant stage manager. No one acknowledged that he was invaluable about the place, but he was. When a new play was in rehearsal at the Thalia, Wallie knew more about props, business, cues, lights, and lines than the director himself. For a long time no one but Wallie and the director were aware of this. The director never did admit it. But that Hahn should find it out was inevitable.
He was nineteen or thereabouts when he was sent, one rainy November evening, to deliver a play manuscript to Hahn at his apartment. Wallie might have refused to perform an errand so menial, but his worship of Hahn made him glad of any service, however humble. He buttoned his coat over the manuscript, turned up his collar, and plunged into the cold drizzle of the November evening.
Hahn’s apartment–he lived alone–was in the early fifties, off Fifth Avenue. For two days he had been ill with one of the heavy colds to which he was subject. He was unable to leave the house. Hence Wallie’s errand.
It was Saki–or Saki’s equivalent–who opened the door. A white-coated, soft-stepping Jap, world-old looking like the room glimpsed just beyond. Someone was playing the piano with one finger, horribly.
“You’re to give this to Mr. Hahn. He’s waiting for it.”
“Genelmun come in,” said the Jap, softly.
“No, he don’t want to see me. Just give it to him, see?”
“Genelmun come in.” Evidently orders.
“Oh, all right. But I know he doesn’t want–“
Wallie turned down his collar with a quick flip, looked doubtfully at his shoes, and passed through the glowing little foyer into the room beyond. He stood in the doorway. He was scarcely twenty then, but something in him sort of rose, and gathered, and seethed, and swelled, and then hardened. He didn’t know it then but it was his great resolve.
Sid Hahn was seated at the piano, a squat, gnomelike little figure, with those big ears, and that plump face, and those soft eyes–the kindest eyes in the world. He did not stop playing as Wallie appeared. He glanced up at him, ever so briefly, but kindly, too, and went on playing the thing with one short forefinger, excruciatingly. Wallie waited. He had heard somewhere that Hahn would sit at the piano thus, for hours, the tears running down his cheeks because of the beauty of the music he could remember but not reproduce; and partly because of his own inability to reproduce it.
The stubby little forefinger faltered, stopped. He looked up at Wallie.
“God, I wish I could play!”
“Helps a lot.”
“Oh, most anything I’ve heard once. And some things I kind of make up.”
“Compose, you mean?”
“Play one of those.”
So Wallie Ascher played one of those. Of course you know “Good Night–Pleasant Dreams.” He hadn’t named it then. It wasn’t even published until almost two years later, but that was what he played for Sid Hahn. Since “After The Ball” no popular song has achieved the success of that one. No doubt it was cheap, and no doubt it was sentimental, but so, too, are “The Suwanee River” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” and they’ll be singing those when more classical songs have long been forgotten. As Wallie played it his dark, thin face seemed to gleam and glow in the lamplight.
When he had finished Sid Hahn was silent for a moment. Then, “What’re you going to do with it?”
“With what you’ve got. You know.”
Wallie knew that he did not mean the song he had just played. “I’m going to–I’m going to do a lot with it.”
“Yeh, but how?”
Wallie was looking down at his two lean brown hands on the keys. For a long minute he did not answer. Then: “By thinking about it all the time. And working like hell…. And you’ve got to be selfish … You’ve got to be selfish …”
As Sid Hahn stared at him, as though hypnotized, the Jap appeared in the doorway. Sid Hahn said, “Stay and have dinner with me,” instead of what he had meant to say.
“Oh, I can’t! Thanks. I–” He wanted to terribly, but the thought was too much.
They had dinner together. Even under the influence of Hahn’s encouragement and two glasses of mellow wine whose name he did not know, Wallie did not become fatuous. They talked about music–neither of them knew anything about it, really. Wallie confessed that he used it as an intoxicant and a stimulant.
“That’s it!” cried Hahn, excitedly. “If I could play I’d have done more. More.”
“Why don’t you get one of those piano-players, What-you-call’ems?” Then, immediately, “No, of course not.”
“Nah, that doesn’t do it,” said Hahn, quickly. “That’s like adopting a baby when you can’t have one of your own. It isn’t the same. It isn’t the same. It looks like a baby, and acts like a baby, and sounds like a baby–but it isn’t yours. It isn’t you. That’s it! It isn’t you!”
“Yeh,” agreed Wallie, nodding. So perfectly did they understand each other, this ill-assorted pair.
It was midnight before Wallie left. They had both forgotten about the play manuscript whose delivery had been considered so important. The big room was gracious, quiet, soothing. A fire flickered in the grate. One lamp glowed softly–almost sombrely.
As Wallie rose at last to go he shook himself slightly like one coming out of a trance. He looked slowly about the golden, mellow room. “Gee!”
“Yes, but it isn’t worth it,” said Hahn, “after you’ve got it.”
“That’s what they all say”–grimly–“after they’ve got it.”
The thing that had been born in Sid Hahn’s mind thirty years before was now so plainly stamped on this boy’s face that Hahn was startled into earnestness. “But I tell you, it’s true! It’s true!”
“Maybe. Some day, when I’m living in a place like this, I’ll let you know if you’re right.”
In less than a year Wallie Ascher was working with Hahn. No one knew his official title or place. But “Ask Wallie. He’ll know,” had become a sort of slogan in the office. He did know. At twenty-one his knowledge of the theatre was infallible (this does not include plays unproduced; in this no one is infallible) and his feeling for it amounted to a sixth sense. There was something uncanny about the way he could talk about Lottie, for example, as if he had seen her; or Mrs. Siddons; or Mrs. Fiske when she was Minnie Maddern, the soubrette. It was as though he had the power to cast himself back into the past. No doubt it was that power which gave later to his group of historical plays (written by him between the ages of thirty and thirty-five) their convincingness and authority.
When Wallie was about twenty-three or -four Sid Hahn took him abroad on one of his annual scouting trips. Yearly, in the spring, Hahn swooped down upon London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, seeking that of the foreign stage which might be translated, fumigated, desiccated, or otherwise rendered suitable for home use. He sent Wallie on to Vienna, alone, on the trail of a musical comedy rumoured to be a second Merry Widow in tunefulness, chic, and charm. Of course it wasn’t. Merry Widows rarely repeat. Wallie wired Hahn, as arranged. The telegram is unimportant, perhaps, but characteristic.
MR. SID. HAHN,
It’s a second all right but not a second Merry Widow. Heard
of a winner in Budapest. Shall I go. Spent to-day from eleven
to five running around the Ringstrasse looking for mythical
creature known as the chic Viennese. After careful
investigation wish to be quoted as saying the species if any
This, remember, was in the year 1913, B.W. Wallie, obeying instructions, went to Budapest, witnessed the alleged winner, found it as advertised, wired Hahn to that effect, and was joined by that gentleman three days later.
Budapest, at that time, was still Little Paris, only wickeder. A city of magnificent buildings, and unsalted caviar, and beautiful, dangerous women, and frumpy men (civilian) and dashing officers in red pants, and Cigany music, and cafes and paprika and two-horse droshkies. Buda, low and flat, lay on one side; Pest, high and hilly, perched picturesquely on the other. Between the two rolled the Blue Danube (which is yellow).
It was here that Hahn and Wallie found Mizzi Markis. Mizzi Markis, then a girl of nineteen, was a hod carrier.
Wallie had three days in Budapest before Hahn met him there. As the manager stepped from the train, looking geometrically square in a long ulster that touched his ears and his heels, Wallie met him with a bound.
“Hello, S.H.! Great to see you! Say, listen, I’ve found something. I’ve found something big!”
Hahn had never seen the boy so excited. “Oh, shucks! No play’s as good as that.”
“Play! It isn’t a play.”
“Why, you young idiot, you said it was good! You said it was darned good! You don’t mean to tell me–“
“Oh, that! That’s all right. It’s good–or will be when you get through with it.”
“What you talking about then? Here, let’s take one of these things with two horses. Gee, you ought to smoke a fat black seegar and wear a silk hat when you ride in one of these! I feel like a parade.” He was like a boy on a holiday, as always when in Europe.
“But let me tell you about this girl, won’t you!”
“Oh, it’s a girl! What’s her name? What’s she do?”
“Her name’s Mizzi.”
“I don’t know. She’s a hod carrier. She–“
“That’s all right, Wallie. I’m here now. An ice bag on your head and real quiet for two-three days. You’ll come round fine.”
But Wallie was almost sulking. “Wait till you see her, S.H. She sings.”
“Beautiful, is she?”
“No, not particularly. No.”
“Wonderful voice, h’m?”
“N-n-no. I wouldn’t say it was what you’d call exactly wonderful.”
Sid Hahn stood up in the droshky and waved his short arms in windmill circles. “Well, what the devil does she do then, that’s so good? Carry bricks!”
“She is good at that. When she balances that pail of mortar on her head and walks off with it, her arms hanging straight at her sides–“
But Sid Hahn’s patience was at an end. “You’re a humourist, you are. If I didn’t know you I’d say you were drunk. I’ll bet you are, anyway. You’ve been eating paprika, raw. You make me sick.”
Inelegant, but expressive of his feelings. But Wallie only said, “You wait. You’ll see.”
Sid Hahn did see. He saw next day. Wallie woke him out of a sound sleep so that he might see. It was ten-thirty A.M. so that his peevishness was unwarranted. They had seen the play the night before and Hahn had decided that, translated and with interpolations (it was a comic opera), it would captivate New York. Then and there he completed the negotiations which Wallie had begun. Hahn was all for taking the first train out, but Wallie was firm. “You’ve got to see her, I tell you. You’ve got to see her.”
Their hotel faced the Corso. The Corso is a wide promenade that runs along the Buda bank of the Danube. Across the river, on the hill, the royal palace looks down upon the little common people. In that day the monde and the demi-monde of Budapest walked on the Corso between twelve and one. Up and down. Up and down. The women, tall, dark, flashing-eyed, daringly dressed. The men sallow, meagre, and wearing those trousers which, cut very wide and flappy at the ankles, make them the dowdiest men in the world. Hahn’s room and Wallie’s were on the second floor of the hotel, and at a corner. One set of windows faced the Corso, the river, and Pest on the hill. The other set looked down upon a new building being erected across the way. It was on this building that Mizzi Markis worked as hod carrier.
The war accustomed us to a million women in overalls doing the work of a million men. We saw them ploughing, juggling steel bars, making shells, running engines, stoking furnaces, handling freight. But to these two American men, at that time, the thing at which these labouring women were employed was dreadful and incredible.
Said Wallie “By the time we’ve dressed, and had breakfast, and walked a little and everything, it’ll be almost noon. And noon’s the time. After they’ve eaten their lunch. But I want you to see her before.”
By now his earnestness had impressed Hahn who still feigned an indifference he did not feel. It was about 11:30 when Wallie propelled him by the arm to the unfinished building across the way. And there he met Mizzi.
They were just completing the foundation. The place was a busy hive. Back and forth with pails. Back and forth with loads of bricks.
“What’s the matter with the men?” was Hahn’s first question.
Wallie explained. “They do the dainty work. They put one brick on top of the other, with a dab of mortar between. But none of the back-breaking stuff for them. The women do that.”
And it was so. They were down in the pits mixing the mortar, were the women. They were carrying great pails of it. They were hauling bricks up one ladder and down. They wore short, full skirts with a musical-comedy-chorus effect. Some of them looked seventy and some seventeen. It was fearful work for a woman. A keen wind was blowing across the river. Their hands were purple.
“Pick Mizzi,” said Wallie. “If you can pick her I’ll know I’m right. But I know it, anyway.”
Five minutes passed. The two men stood silent. “The one with the walk and the face,” said Hahn, then. Which wasn’t very bright of him, because they all walked and they all had faces. “Going up the pit-ladder now. With the pail on her head.” Wallie gave a little laugh of triumph. But then, Hahn wouldn’t have been Hahn had he not been able to pick a personality when he saw it.
Years afterward the reviewers always talked of Mizzi’s walk. They called it her superb carriage. They didn’t know that you have to walk very straight, on the balls of your feet, with your hips firm, your stomach held in flat, your shoulders back, your chest out, your chin out and a little down, if you are going to be at all successful in balancing a pail of mortar on your head. After a while that walk becomes a habit.
“Watch her with that pail,” said Wallie.
Mizzi filled the pail almost to the top with the heavy white mixture. She filled it quickly, expertly. The pail, filled, weighed between seventeen and twenty kilos. One kilo is equal to about two and one fifth pounds. The girl threw down her scoop, stooped, grasped the pail by its two handles, and with one superb, unbroken motion raised the pail high in her two strong arms and placed it on her head. Then she breathed deeply, once, set her whole figure, turned stiffly, and was off with it. Sid Hahn took on a long breath as though he himself had just accomplished the gymnastic feat.
“Well, so far it’s pretty good. But I don’t know that the American stage is clamouring for any hod carriers and mortar mixers, exactly.”
A whistle blew. Twelve o’clock. Bricks, mortar, scoops, shovels were abandoned. The women, in their great clod-hopping shoes, flew chattering to the tiny hut where their lunch boxes were stored. The men followed more slowly, a mere handful of them. Not one of them wore overalls or apron. Out again with their bundles and boxes of food–very small bundles. Very tiny boxes. They ate ravenously the bread and sausage and drank their beer in great gulps. Fifteen minutes after the whistle had blown the last crumb had vanished.
“Now, then,” said Wallie, and guided Hahn nearer. He looked toward Mizzi. Everyone looked toward her. Mizzi stood up, brushing crumbs from her lap. She had a little four-cornered black shawl, folded cross-wise, over her head and tied under her chin. Her face was round and her cheeks red. The shawl, framing this, made her look very young and cherubic.
She did not put her hands on her hips, or do any of those story-book things. She grinned, broadly, showing strong white teeth made strong and white through much munching of coarse black bread; not yet showing the neglect common to her class. She asked a question in a loud, clear voice.
“What’s that?” asked Hahn.
“She’s talking a kind of hunky Hungarian, I guess. The people here won’t speak German, did you know that? They hate it.”
The crowd shouted back with one voice. They settled themselves comfortably, sitting or standing. Their faces held the broad smile of anticipation.
“She asked them what they want her to sing. They told her. It’s the same every day.”
Mizzi Markis stood there before them in the mud, and clay, and straw of the building debris. And she sang for them a Hungarian popular song of the day which, translated, sounds idiotic and which runs something like this:
A hundred geese in a row
Going into the coop.
At the head of the procession
A stick over his shoulder–
No, you can’t do it. It means less than nothing that way, and certainly would not warrant the shrieks of mirth that came from the audience gathered round the girl. Still, when you recall the words of “A Hot Time”:
When you hear dem bells go ding-ling-ling,
All join round and sweetly you must sing
And when the words am through in the chorus all join in
There’ll be a hot time
In the old town
And yet it swept this continent, and Europe, and in Japan they still think it’s our national anthem.
When she had finished, the crowd gave a roar of delight, and clapped their hands, and stamped their feet, and shouted. She had no unusual beauty. Her voice was untrained though possessed of strength and flexibility. It wasn’t what she had sung, surely. You heard the song in a hundred cafes. Every street boy whistled it. It wasn’t that expressive pair of shoulders, exactly. It wasn’t a certain soothing tonal quality that made you forget all the things you’d been trying not to remember.
There is something so futile and unconvincing about an attempted description of an intangible thing. Some call it personality; some call it magnetism; some a rhythm sense; and some, genius. It’s all these things, and none of them. Whatever it is, she had it. And whatever it is, Sid Hahn has never failed to recognize it.
So now he said, quietly, “She’s got it.”
“You bet she’s got it!” from Wallie. “She’s got more than Renee Paterne ever had. A year of training and some clothes–“
“You don’t need to tell me. I’m in the theatrical business, myself.”
“I’m sorry,” stiffly.
But Hahn, too, was sorry immediately. “You know how I am, Wallie. I like to run a thing off by myself. What do you know about her? Find out anything?”
“Well, a little. She doesn’t seem to have any people. And she’s decent. Kind of a fierce kid, I guess, and fights when offended. They say she’s Polish, not Hungarian. Her mother was a peasant. Her father–nobody knows. I had a dickens of a time finding out anything. The most terrible language in the world–Hungarian. They’ll stick a b next to a k and follow it up with a z and put an accent mark over the whole business and call it a word. Last night I followed her home. And guess what!”
“What?” said Hahn, obligingly.
“On her way she had to cross the big square–the one they call Gisela Ter, with all the shops around it. Well, when she came to Gerbeaud’s–“
“That’s the famous tea room and pastry shop where all the swells go and guzzle tea with rum in it and eat cakes–and say! It isn’t like our pastry that tastes like sawdust covered with shaving soap. Marvellous stuff, this is!”
After all, he was barely twenty-four. So Hahn said, good-naturedly, “All right, all right. We’ll go there this afternoon and eat an acre of it. Go on. When she came to Gerbeaud’s…?”
“Well, when she came to Gerbeaud’s she stopped and stood there, outside. There was a strip of red carpet from the door to the street. You know–the kind they have at home when there’s a wedding on Fifth Avenue. There she stood at the edge of the carpet, waiting, her face, framed in that funny little black shawl, turned toward the window, and the tail of the little shawl kind of waggling in the wind. It was cold and nippy. I waited, too. Finally I sort of strolled over to her–I knew she couldn’t any more than knock me down–and said, kind of casual, ‘What’s doing?’ She looked up at me, like a kid, in that funny shawl. She knew I was an Englees, right away. I guess I must have a fine, open countenance. And I had motioned toward the red carpet, and the crowded windows. Anyway, she opens up with a regular burst of fireworks Hungarian, in that deep voice of hers. Not only that, she acted it out. In two seconds she had on an imaginary coronet and a court train. And haughty! Gosh! I was sort of stumped, but I said, ‘You don’t say!’ and waited some more. And then they flung open the door of the tea shop thing. At the same moment up dashed an equipage–you couldn’t possibly call it anything less–with flunkeys all over the outside, like trained monkeys. The people inside the shop stood up, with their mouths full of cake, and out came an old frump with a terrible hat and a fringe. And it was the Archduchess, and her name is Josefa.”
“Your story interests me strangely, boy,” Hahn said, grinning, “but I don’t quite make you. Do archduchesses go to tea rooms for tea? And what’s that got to do with our gifted little hod carrier?”
“This duchess does. Believe me, those tarts are good enough for the Queen of Hearts, let alone a duchess, no matter how arch. But the plot of the piece is this. The duchess person goes to Gerbeaud’s about twice a week. And they always spread a red carpet for her. And Mizzi always manages to cut away in time to stand there in front of Gerbeaud’s and see her come out. She’s a gorgeous mimic, that little kid. And though I couldn’t understand a word she said I managed to get out of it just this: That some day they’re going to spread a red carpet for Mizzi and she’s going to walk down it in glory. If you’d seen her face when she said it, S.H., you wouldn’t laugh.”
“I wouldn’t laugh anyway,” said Hahn, seriously.
And that’s the true story of Mizzi Markis’s beginning. Few people know it.
* * * * *
There they were, the three of them. And of the three, Mizzi’s ambition seemed to be the fiercest, the most implacable. She worked like a horse, cramming English, French, singing. In some things she was like a woman of thirty; in others a child of ten. Her gratitude to Hahn was pathetic. No one ever doubted that he was in love with her almost from the first–he who had resisted the professional beauties of three decades.
You know she wasn’t–and isn’t–a beauty, even in that portrait of her by Sargent, with her two black-haired, stunning-looking boys, one on either side. But she was one of those gorgeously healthy women whose very presence energizes those with whom she comes in contact. And then there was about her a certain bounteousness. There’s no other word for it, really. She reminded you of those gracious figures you see posed for pictures entitled “Autumn Harvest.”
While she was studying she had a little apartment with a middle-aged woman to look after her, and she must have been a handful. A born cook, she was, and Hahn and Wallie used to go there to dinner whenever she would let them. She cooked it herself. Hahn would give up any engagement for a dinner at Mizzi’s. When he entered her little sitting room his cares seemed to drop from him. She never got over cutting bread as the peasant women do it–the loaf held firmly against her breast, the knife cutting toward her. Hahn used to watch her and laugh. Sometimes she would put on the little black head-shawl of her Budapest days and sing the street-song about the hundred geese in a row. A delightful, impudent figure.
With the very first English she learned she told Hahn and Wallie that some day they were going to spread a fine red carpet for her to tread upon and that all the world would gaze on her with envy. It was in her mind a symbol typifying all that there was of earthly glory.
“It’ll be a long time before they do any red carpeting for you, my girl,” Sid Hahn had said.
She turned on him fiercely. “I will not rest–I will not eat–I will not sleep–I will not love–until I have it.”
Which was, of course, an exaggerated absurdity.
“Oh, what rot!” Wallie Ascher had said, angrily, and then he had thought of his own symbol of success, and his own resolve. And his face had hardened. Sid Hahn looked at the two of them; very young, both of them, very gifted, very electric. Very much in love with each other, though neither would admit it even in their own minds. Both their stern young faces set toward the goal which they thought meant happiness.
Now, Sid Hahn had never dabbled in this new stuff–you know–complexes and fixed ideas and images. But he was a very wise man, and he did know to what an extent these two were possessed by ambition for that which they considered desirable.
He must have thought it over for weeks. He was in love with Mizzi, remember. And his fondness for Wallie was a thing almost paternal. He watched these two for a long, long time, a queer, grim little smile on his gargoyle face. And then his mind was made up. He had always had his own way. He must have had a certain terrible enjoyment in depriving himself of the one thing he wanted most in the world–the one thing he wanted more than he had ever wanted anything.
He decided that Destiny–a ponderous, slow-moving creature at best–needed a little prodding from him. His plans were simple, as all effective plans are.
Mizzi had been in America just a year and a half. Her development was amazing, but she was far from being the finished product that she became in later years. Hahn decided to chance it. Mizzi had no fear of audiences. He had tried her out on that. An audience stimulated her. She took it to her breast. She romped with it.
He found a play at last. A comedy, with music. It was frankly built for Mizzi. He called Wallie Ascher into his office.
“I wouldn’t try her out here for a million. New York’s too fly. Some little thing might be wrong–you know how they are. And all the rest would go for nothing. The kindest audience in the world–when they like you. And the cruelest when they don’t. We’ll go on the road for two weeks. Then we’ll open at the Blackstone in Chicago. I think this girl has got more real genius than any woman since–since Bernhardt in her prime. Five years from now she won’t be singing. She’ll be acting. And it’ll be acting.”
“Aren’t you forcing things just a little?” asked Wallie, coolly.
“Oh, no. No. Anyway, it’s just a try-out. By the way, Wallie, I’ll probably be gone almost a month. If things go pretty well in Chicago I’ll run over to French Lick for eight or ten days and see if I can’t get a little of this stiffness out of my old bones. Will you do something for me?”
“Pack a few clothes and go up to my place and live there, will you? The Jap stays on, anyway. The last time I left it alone things went wrong. You’ll be doing me a favour. Take it and play the piano, and have your friends in, and boss the Jap around. He’s stuck on you, anyway. Says he likes to hear you play.”
He stayed away six weeks. And any one who knows him knows what hardship that was. He loved New York, and his own place, and his comfort, and his books; and hotel food gave him hideous indigestion.
Mizzi’s first appearance was a moderate success. It was nothing like the sensation of her later efforts. She wasn’t ready, and Hahn knew it. Mizzi and her middle-aged woman companion were installed at the Blackstone Hotel, which is just next door to the Blackstone Theatre, as any one is aware who knows Chicago. She was advertised as the Polish comedienne, Mizzi Markis, and the announcements hinted at her royal though remote ancestry. And on the night the play opened, as Mizzi stepped from the entrance of her hotel on her way to the stage door, just forty or fifty feet away, there she saw stretched on the pavement a scarlet path of soft-grained carpet for her feet to tread. From the steps of the hotel to the stage door of the theatre, there it lay, a rosy line of splendour.
The newspapers played it up as a publicity stunt. Every night, while the play lasted, the carpet was there. It was rolled up when the stage door closed upon her. It was unrolled and spread again when she came out after the performance. Hahn never forgot her face when she first saw it, and realized its significance. The look was there on the second night, and on the third, but after that it faded, vanished, and never came again. Mizzi had tasted of the golden fruit and found it dry and profitless, without nourishment or sweetness.
The show closed in the midst of a fairly good run. It closed abruptly, without warning. Together they came back to New York. Just outside New York Hahn knocked at the door of Mizzi’s drawing room and stuck his round, ugly face in at the opening.
“Let’s surprise Wallie,” he said.
“Yes,” said Mizzi, listlessly.
“He doesn’t know the show’s closed. We’ll take a chance on his being home for dinner. Unless you’re too tired.”
“I’m not tired.”
The Jap admitted them, and Hahn cut off his staccato exclamations with a quick and smothering hand. They tiptoed into the big, gracious, lamp-lighted room.
Wallie was seated at the piano. He had on a silk dressing gown with a purple cord. One of those dressing gowns you see in the haberdashers’ windows, and wonder who buys them. He looked very tall in it, and rather distinguished, but not quite happy. He was playing as they came in. They said, “Boo!” or something idiotic like that. He stood up. And his face!
“Why, hello!” he said, and came forward, swiftly. “Hello! Hello!”
“Hello!” Hahn answered; “Not to say hello-hello.”
Wallie looked at the girl. “Hello, Mizzi.”
“Hello,” said Mizzi.
“For God’s sake stop saying ‘hello!’” roared Hahn.
They both looked at him absently, and then at each other again.
Hahn flung his coat and hat at the Jap and rubbed his palms briskly together. “Well, how did you like it?” he said, and slapped Wallie on the back. “How’d you like it–the place I mean, and the Jap boy and all? H’m?”
“Very much,” Wallie answered, formally. “Very nice.”
“You’ll be having one of your own some day, soon. That’s sure.”
“I suppose so,” said Wallie, indifferently.
“I would like to go home,” said Mizzi, suddenly, in her precise English.
At that Wallie leaped out of his lounging coat. “I’ll take you! I’ll–I’ll be glad to take you.”
Hahn smiled a little, ruefully. “We were going to have dinner here, the three of us. But if you’re tired, Mizzi. I’m not so chipper myself when it comes to that.” He looked about the room, gratefully. “It’s good to be home.”
Wallie, hat in hand, was waiting in the doorway, Mizzi, turning to go, suddenly felt two hands on her shoulders. She was whirled around. Hahn–he had to stand on tiptoe to do it–kissed her once on the mouth, hard. Then he gave her a little shove toward the door. “Tell Wallie about the red carpet,” he said.
“I will not,” Mizzi replied, very distinctly. “I hate red carpets.”
Then they were gone. Hahn hardly seemed to notice that they had left. There were, I suppose, the proper number of Good-byes, and See-you-to-morrows, and Thank yous.
Sid Hahn stood there a moment in the middle of the room, very small, very squat, rather gnomelike, but not at all funny. He went over to the piano and seated himself, his shoulders hunched, his short legs clearing the floor. With the forefinger of his right hand he began to pick out a little tune. Not a sad little tune. A Hungarian street song. He did it atrociously. The stubby forefinger came down painstakingly on the white keys. Suddenly the little Jap servant stood in the doorway. Hahn looked up. His cheeks were wet with tears.
“God! I wish I could play!” he said.