XII. "All the World's a Stage"
Kitty proved herself Joe's sister by falling desperately in love with Hattie Sterling the first time they met. The actress was very gracious to her, and called her "child" in a pretty, patronising way, and patted her on the cheek.
"It 's a shame that Joe has n't brought you around before. We 've been good friends for quite some time."
"He told me you an' him was right good friends."
Already Joe took on a new importance in his sister's eyes. He must be quite a man, she thought, to be the friend of such a person as Miss Sterling.
"So you think you want to go on the stage, do you?"
"Yes, 'm, I thought it might be right nice for me if I could."
"Joe, go out and get some beer for us, and then I 'll hear your sister sing."
Miss Sterling talked as if she were a manager and had only to snap her fingers to be obeyed. When Joe came back with the beer, Kitty drank a glass. She did not like it, but she would not offend her hostess. After this she sang, and Miss Sterling applauded her generously, although the young girl's nervousness kept her from doing her best. The encouragement helped her, and she did better as she became more at home.
"Why, child, you 've got a good voice. And, Joe, you 've been keeping her shut up all this time. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
The young man had little to say. He had brought Kitty almost under a protest, because he had no confidence in her ability and thought that his "girl" would disillusion her. It did not please him now to find his sister so fully under the limelight and himself "up stage."
Kitty was quite in a flutter of delight; not so much with the idea of working as with the glamour of the work she might be allowed to do.
"I tell you, now," Hattie Sterling pursued, throwing a brightly stockinged foot upon a chair, "your voice is too good for the chorus. Gi' me a cigarette, Joe. Have one, Kitty?--I 'm goin' to call you Kitty. It 's nice and homelike, and then we 've got to be great chums, you know."
Kitty, unwilling to refuse anything from the sorceress, took her cigarette and lighted it, but a few puffs set her off coughing.
"Tut, tut, Kitty, child, don't do it if you ain't used to it. You 'll learn soon enough."
Joe wanted to kick his sister for having tried so delicate an art and failed, for he had not yet lost all of his awe of Hattie.
"Now, what I was going to say," the lady resumed after several contemplative puffs, "is that you 'll have to begin in the chorus any way and work your way up. It would n't take long for you, with your looks and voice, to put one of the 'up and ups' out o' the business. Only hope it won't be me. I 've had people I 've helped try to do it often enough."
She gave a laugh that had just a touch of bitterness in it, for she began to recognise that although she had been on the stage only a short time, she was no longer the all-conquering Hattie Sterling, in the first freshness of her youth.
"Oh, I would n't want to push anybody out," Kit expostulated.
"Oh, never mind, you 'll soon get bravely over that feeling, and even if you did n't it would n't matter much. The thing has to happen. Somebody 's got to go down. We don't last long in this life: it soon wears us out, and when we 're worn out and sung out, danced out and played out, the manager has no further use for us; so he reduces us to the ranks or kicks us out entirely."
Joe here thought it time for him to put in a word. "Get out, Hat," he said contemptuously; "you 're good for a dozen years yet."
She did n't deign to notice him, save so far as a sniff goes.
"Don't you let what I say scare you, though, Kitty. You 've got a good chance, and maybe you 'll have more sense than I 've got, and at least save money--while you 're in it. But let 's get off that. It makes me sick. All you 've got to do is to come to the opera-house to-morrow and I 'll introduce you to the manager. He 's a fool, but I think we can make him do something for you."
"Oh, thank you, I 'll be around to-morrow, sure."
"Better come about ten o'clock. There 's a rehearsal to-morrow, and you 'll find him there. Of course, he 'll be pretty rough, he always is at rehearsals, but he 'll take to you if he thinks there 's anything in you and he can get it out."
Kitty felt herself dismissed and rose to go. Joe did not rise.
"I 'll see you later, Kit," he said; "I ain't goin' just yet. Say," he added, when his sister was gone, "you 're a hot one. What do you want to give her all that con for? She 'll never get in."
"Joe," said Hattie, "don't you get awful tired of being a jackass? Sometimes I want to kiss you, and sometimes I feel as if I had to kick you. I 'll compromise with you now by letting you bring me some more beer. This got all stale while your sister was here. I saw she did n't like it, and so I would n't drink any more for fear she 'd try to keep up with me."
"Kit is a good deal of a jay yet," Joe remarked wisely.
"Oh, yes, this world is full of jays. Lots of 'em have seen enough to make 'em wise, but they 're still jays, and don't know it. That 's the worst of it. They go around thinking they 're it, when they ain't even in the game. Go on and get the beer."
And Joe went, feeling vaguely that he had been sat upon.
Kit flew home with joyous heart to tell her mother of her good prospects. She burst into the room, crying, "Oh, ma, ma, Miss Hattie thinks I 'll do to go on the stage. Ain't it grand?"
She did not meet with the expected warmth of response from her mother.
"I do' know as it 'll be so gran'. F'om what I see of dem stage people dey don't seem to 'mount to much. De way dem gals shows demse'ves is right down bad to me. Is you goin' to dress lak dem we seen dat night?"
Kit hung her head.
"I guess I 'll have to."
"Well, ef you have to, I 'd ruther see you daid any day. Oh, Kit, my little gal, don't do it, don't do it. Don't you go down lak yo' brothah Joe. Joe 's gone."
"Why, ma, you don't understand. Joe 's somebody now. You ought to 've heard how Miss Hattie talked about him. She said he 's been her friend for a long while."
"Her frien', yes, an' his own inimy. You need n' pattern aftah dat gal, Kit. She ruint Joe, an' she 's aftah you now."
"But nowadays everybody thinks stage people respectable up here."
"Maybe I 'm ol'-fashioned, but I can't believe in any ooman's ladyship when she shows herse'f lak dem gals does. Oh, Kit, don't do it. Ain't you seen enough? Don't you know enough already to stay away f'om dese hyeah people? Dey don't want nothin' but to pull you down an' den laugh at you w'en you 's dragged in de dust."
"You must n't feel that away, ma. I 'm doin' it to help you."
"I do' want no sich help. I 'd ruther starve."
Kit did not reply, but there was no yielding in her manner.
"Kit," her mother went on, "dey 's somep'n I ain't nevah tol' you dat I 'm goin' to tell you now. Mistah Gibson ust to come to Mis' Jones's lots to see me befo' we moved hyeah, an' he 's been talkin' 'bout a good many things to me." She hesitated. "He say dat I ain't noways ma'ied to my po' husban', dat a pen'tentiary sentence is de same as a divo'ce, an' if Be'y should live to git out, we 'd have to ma'y ag'in. I would n't min' dat, Kit, but he say dat at Be'y's age dey ain't much chanst of his livin' to git out, an' hyeah I 'll live all dis time alone, an' den have no one to tek keer o' me w'en I git ol'. He wants me to ma'y him, Kit. Kit, I love yo' fathah; he 's my only one. But Joe, he 's gone, an' ef yo go, befo' Gawd I 'll tell Tawm Gibson yes."
The mother looked up to see just what effect her plea would have on her daughter. She hoped that what she said would have the desired result. But the girl turned around from fixing her neck-ribbon before the glass, her face radiant. "Why, it 'll be splendid. He 's such a nice man, an' race-horse men 'most always have money. Why don't you marry him, ma? Then I 'd feel that you was safe an' settled, an' that you would n't be lonesome when the show was out of town."
"You want me to ma'y him an' desert yo' po' pa?"
"I guess what he says is right, ma. I don't reckon we 'll ever see pa again an' you got to do something. You got to live for yourself now."
Her mother dropped her head in her hands. "All right," she said, "I 'll do it; I 'll ma'y him. I might as well go de way both my chillen 's gone. Po' Be'y, po' Be'y. Ef you evah do come out, Gawd he'p you to baih what you 'll fin'." And Mrs. Hamilton rose and tottered from the room, as if the old age she anticipated had already come upon her.
Kit stood looking after her, fear and grief in her eyes. "Poor ma," she said, "an' poor pa. But I know, an' I know it 's for the best."
On the next morning she was up early and practising hard for her interview with the managing star of "Martin's Blackbirds."
When she arrived at the theatre, Hattie Sterling met her with frank friendliness.
"I 'm glad you came early, Kitty," she remarked, "for maybe you can get a chance to talk with Martin before he begins rehearsal and gets all worked up. He 'll be a little less like a bear then. But even if you don't see him before then, wait, and don't get scared if he tries to bluff you. His bark is a good deal worse than his bite."
When Mr. Martin came in that morning, he had other ideas than that of seeing applicants for places. His show must begin in two weeks, and it was advertised to be larger and better than ever before, when really nothing at all had been done for it. The promise of this advertisement must be fulfilled. Mr. Martin was late, and was out of humour with every one else on account of it. He came in hurried, fierce, and important.
"Mornin', Mr. Smith, mornin', Mrs. Jones. Ha, ladies and gentlemen, all here?"
He shot every word out of his mouth as if the after-taste of it were unpleasant to him. He walked among the chorus like an angry king among his vassals, and his glance was a flash of insolent fire. From his head to his feet he was the very epitome of self-sufficient, brutal conceit.
Kitty trembled as she noted the hush that fell on the people at his entrance. She felt like rushing out of the room. She could never face this terrible man. She trembled more as she found his eyes fixed upon her.
"Who 's that?" he asked, disregarding her, as if she had been a stick or a stone.
"Well, don't snap her head off. It 's a girl friend of mine that wants a place," said Hattie. She was the only one who would brave Martin.
"Humph. Let her wait. I ain't got no time to hear any one now. Get yourselves in line, you all who are on to that first chorus, while I 'm getting into my sweat-shirt."
He disappeared behind a screen, whence he emerged arrayed, or only half arrayed, in a thick absorbing shirt and a thin pair of woollen trousers. Then the work began. The man was indefatigable. He was like the spirit of energy. He was in every place about the stage at once, leading the chorus, showing them steps, twisting some awkward girl into shape, shouting, gesticulating, abusing the pianist.
"Now, now," he would shout, "the left foot on that beat. Bah, bah, stop! You walk like a lot of tin soldiers. Are your joints rusty? Do you want oil? Look here, Taylor, if I did n't know you, I 'd take you for a truck. Pick up your feet, open your mouths, and move, move, move! Oh!" and he would drop his head in despair. "And to think that I 've got to do something with these things in two weeks--two weeks!" Then he would turn to them again with a sudden reaccession of eagerness. "Now, at it again, at it again! Hold that note, hold it! Now whirl, and on the left foot. Stop that music, stop it! Miss Coster, you 'll learn that step in about a thousand years, and I 've got nine hundred and ninety-nine years and fifty weeks less time than that to spare. Come here and try that step with me. Don't be afraid to move. Step like a chicken on a hot griddle!" And some blushing girl would come forward and go through the step alone before all the rest.
Kitty contemplated the scene with a mind equally divided between fear and anger. What should she do if he should so speak to her? Like the others, no doubt, smile sheepishly and obey him. But she did not like to believe it. She felt that the independence which she had known from babyhood would assert itself, and that she would talk back to him, even as Hattie Sterling did. She felt scared and discouraged, but every now and then her friend smiled encouragingly upon her across the ranks of moving singers.
Finally, however, her thoughts were broken in upon by hearing Mr. Martin cry: "Oh, quit, quit, and go rest yourselves, you ancient pieces of hickory, and let me forget you for a minute before I go crazy. Where 's that new girl now?"
Kitty rose and went toward him, trembling so that she could hardly walk.
"What can you do?"
"I can sing," very faintly.
"Well, if that 's the voice you 're going to sing in, there won't be many that 'll know whether it 's good or bad. Well, let 's hear something. Do you know any of these?"
And he ran over the titles of several songs. She knew some of them, and he selected one. "Try this. Here, Tom, play it for her."
It was an ordeal for the girl to go through. She had never sung before at anything more formidable than a church concert, where only her immediate acquaintances and townspeople were present. Now to sing before all these strange people, themselves singers, made her feel faint and awkward. But the courage of desperation came to her, and she struck into the song. At the first her voice wavered and threatened to fail her. It must not. She choked back her fright and forced the music from her lips.
When she was done, she was startled to hear Martin burst into a raucous laugh. Such humiliation! She had failed, and instead of telling her, he was bringing her to shame before the whole company. The tears came into her eyes, and she was about giving way when she caught a reassuring nod and smile from Hattie Sterling, and seized on this as a last hope.
"Haw, haw, haw!" laughed Martin, "haw, haw, haw! The little one was scared, see? She was scared, d' you understand? But did you see the grit she went at it with? Just took the bit in her teeth and got away. Haw, haw, haw! Now, that 's what I like. If all you girls had that spirit, we could do something in two weeks. Try another one, girl."
Kitty's heart had suddenly grown light. She sang the second one better because something within her was singing.
"Good!" said Martin, but he immediately returned to his cold manner. "You watch these girls close and see what they do, and to-morrow be prepared to go into line and move as well as sing."
He immediately turned his attention from her to the chorus, but no slight that he could inflict upon her now could take away the sweet truth that she was engaged and to-morrow would begin work. She wished she could go over and embrace Hattie Sterling. She thought kindly of Joe, and promised herself to give him a present out of her first month's earnings.
On the first night of the show pretty little Kitty Hamilton was pointed out as a girl who would n't be in the chorus long. The mother, who was soon to be Mrs. Gibson, sat in the balcony, a grieved, pained look on her face. Joe was in a front row with some of the rest of the gang. He took many drinks between the acts, because he was proud.
Mr. Thomas was there. He also was proud, and after the performance he waited for Kitty at the stage door and went forward to meet her as she came out. The look she gave him stopped him, and he let her pass without a word.
"Who 'd 'a' thought," he mused, "that the kid had that much nerve? Well, if they don't want to find out things, what do they come to N' Yawk for? It ain't nobody's old Sunday-school picnic. Guess I got out easy, anyhow."
Hattie Sterling took Joe home in a hansom.
"Say," she said, "if you come this way for me again, it 's all over, see? Your little sister 's a comer, and I 've got to hustle to keep up with her."
Joe growled and fell asleep in his chair. One must needs have a strong head or a strong will when one is the brother of a celebrity and would celebrate the distinguished one's success.