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In which I refuse an offer to play in the provinces; make my final appearance as Billy at the Duke of York's Theater; and suffer a bitter disappointment.
I ASSUMED a slightly bored air while I glanced through the note again. Oh, yes, Mrs. Kendall! The greatest actress in London. Well, I would call on her if she liked; I would just drop in and see what she had to offer. Something good, no doubt, but I should soon show her that it would have to be something very good indeed if she hoped to get me.
I flipped the note under the dressing-table and began to make up, wondering what America would prove to be like, picturing to myself the enthusiasm of. American reporters when it was known that William Gillette was bringing England's greatest boy actor to New York with him.
"Curtain!" cried the call boy down the corridors. I called him in, hastily scribbled off a note to Mrs. Kendall, saying that I would call at twelve next day, and gave it to the call boy to post. Then I went out, nodding affably to the other actors, and took my place in the wings to await my cue.
"Too bad the season's closing, isn't it?" said Irene Vanbrugh, who stood beside me.
"Oh, it's been a pleasant season enough, as seasons go," I replied carelessly. "The deuce of it is, there's no rest between 'em when one has made a hit. Rehearsals and all that."
"Y-yes," she said, looking at me queerly.
"And it's such a bore, so many people after one," I continued. "Now, there's Mrs. Kendall, very pleasant woman and all that — had another note from her just now. Suppose I'll have to run around and see her again."
"Oh, I say, Mrs. Kendall — not really!" Miss Vanbrugh cried, in such a tone of awe that it annoyed me. Mrs. Kendall was well enough, I said to myself, but I was the greatest boy actor in England. I took my cue confidently, glad not to be bothered with any more of Miss Vanbrugh's conversation.
The next day at noon I arrived at Mrs. Kendall's hotel, humming a bit and swinging a new cane, very well pleased with myself, for the notices in the London journals had been very good indeed that day. I noticed that the lift boy recognized me and seemed properly impressed, and I stepped into Mrs. Kendall's sitting-room disposed to be quite affable to her.
She was not there. I waited five minutes and still she had not come. I began to be irritated. What, keeping me waiting! I glanced at my watch, walked up and down a minute, very much bored with such lack of consideration on her part. Then I determined to leave and show her I was not to be trifled with in such a manner. Just as I took up my cane the door opened and Mrs. Kendall entered. She was a pleasant matronly-looking woman with tired lines around her eyes and a quiet gentle manner.
"I'm afraid I have just a minute," I said, ostentatiously looking at my watch again.
"I'm very sorry to have kept you waiting," she answered in a soft low voice. "We understand your season with Mr. Frohman is ending next week. Mr. Kendall and I have seen your work. We are taking out a company for a forty-weeks' tour in the provinces, and there is a part with us which we think you would fill very well,"
I looked at her with raised eyebrows.
"In the provinces?" I said coldly. "I am very sorry, madam, but I could not think of leaving London." I took up my cane again and rose briskly.
Mrs. Kendall looked at me a moment with a tired smile about her lips. Then she rose, said that in that case she regretted having taken up my time, and told me good-by very pleasantly.
"She sees she can not offer me anything!" I said proudly to myself, putting back my shoulders importantly as I came down in the lift. I walked through the hotel lounging-room with a quick brisk step, called a cab and said to the driver in a loud voice, so the bystanders might guess who I was, "Duke of York's Theater, and be quick about it, my man!"
I awaited confidently an offer from Frohman to bring me to New York with William Gillette, determining when it came to insist on an increase in salary. Every evening I expected to find a note from him in my dressing-room, and I met the gloomy glances of the other actors with a wise smile and a knowing look. They might be troubled with the prospect of an uncertain future, I said to myself, but I was secure. I had made the hit of the piece, as the nightly applause showed.
The last week of Sherlock Holmes drew to a close, and with a sinking heart I realized that no offer had come from Frohman. I played my part every night with all the skill I knew, and hearing the house echo and echo again with loud applause, I said to myself, "Now Frohman will see how badly he needs me!" But still there was no word from him.
The last night came, and behind the scenes there was such a deep gloom that one could almost feel it like a fog. There was no joking in the dressing-rooms, the actors moodily made up and walked about the corridors afterward with strained anxious faces or laughed in a manner more gloomy than silence. The company was breaking up, no one knew what part he might find next, and all faced the prospect of wearily walking the Strand again, struggling to get a hearing with the agents, hoping against hope for a chance, growing shabbier and hungrier as they waited and hoped and saw the weeks going by.
For the last time I played Billy; for the last time I met Mr. Gillette's kindly glance and felt him pat my shoulder, saying, "Well done, Billy!" while the audience applauded. We stood together on the stage, bowing and smiling, while the curtain rose and fell and rose again and applause came over the footlights in crashing waves. Then the curtain fell for the last time.
"It's over," said Mr. Gillette, his shoulders drooping with weariness. Then he spoke a word or two of farewell to each of us and went to his dressing-room. The actors hurriedly took off their make-up and scattered, calling to one another in the corridor. "Well, so long, old man!" "See you later, Mabel, tata!" "Wait a minute, I'm coming!" "Good luck old fellow!"
I dressed slowly, unable to believe that this was the last night and that there was no offer from Mr. Frohman. Mr. Gillette was still in his dressing-room. I walked up and down outside his door debating whether or not to tap on it and ask him if there had not been a mistake.
"I was the hit of the play, wasn't I?" I said defiantly to myself, but a great wave of doubt and depression had come over me and I could not bring myself to knock on that door. Suddenly it opened and Mr. Gillette came out dressed for the street. Behind him I saw the Japanese servant carrying a bag.
"Mr. Gillette," I said boldly, though my knees were unsteady. "Aren't you taking any of the company to America with you?"
"Er — oh, it's you!" he said, startled, for he had almost stumbled against me in the gloom. "No; oh, no; I'm not taking any one with me. You were a very good Billy, Charles. I hope you get something good very soon. Good-by."