Act I FRIDAY
THE SUMMER THEATRE was on a pier that jutted off from the boardwalk over the sand. Sometimes when there was a storm and the tide was unusually high the actors could hear the soft swish of water underneath the stage; and the assistant stage manager, one of whose duties was to sweep the stage, was always in a rage at the sand which blew up between the floorboards and through the canvas floorcloth so that ten minutes after he had swept there would be a soft white dust over everything.
On the warm summer nights after the curtain had come down on the evening's performance, the actors would hurry out of costume and makeup and stroll down the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream or Cokes, or drifting into town where there were restaurants and nightclubs. The apprentices, who served as ushers, would walk along in their bright summer evening clothes, and in the ice cream parlors would talk loudly of the evening's performance and of the problems of acting,so that everybody would know that they belonged to the theatre.
Sometimes, if Elizabeth had received a tip, she would go with the other apprentices; sometimes she would walk into town to a midnight movie with Ben Walton, the assistant stage manager, who was also an apprentice actor; but usually she stayed backstage, doing odd jobs for any of the professional actors who needed anything, waiting for a word or a gesture from Kurt Canitz.
Kurt Canitz was the director at the theatre, but occasionally he would take a role that appealed to him and then he would have Elizabeth cue him. When he grew tired of that, he would say, "I'm sick of working. Come and talk with me, Elizabeth." And then he would take her to the restaurant in his hotel, the Ambassador, and talk to her for hours about the theatre, about the productions he had directed on Broadway, about Elizabeth's own talent as an actress.
I have never lived before, Elizabeth thought. Until this summer I did not know what it was to be alive.
One Friday night in the beginning of August, Kurt, his face smeared with greasepaint and cold cream, said, "Elizabeth, I want to talk to you. Go wait for me on the old boardwalk."
The old boardwalk was about a hundred feet closer to the ocean than the regular boardwalk. It had long ago been washed away and consisted now of perhaps a dozen barnacled piles sticking haphazardly up out of the sand.
Elizabeth climbed onto one of the piles and sat facing theocean. She had on the full long yellow dirndl skirt and peasant blouse she had worn for ushering, and the sand had come in through her sandals and settled between her toes. The tide was coming in and small, precocious waves crept closer and closer to her. From farther down the beach came the sound of two recorders playing a duet, and the delicate notes of an old English madrigal floated up to her, so faint and so blown by the wind that the music seemed to be part of the night, one with the lapping of the small waves against the piles, the roar of the breakers muted in the quiet night, rather than a sound produced by two human beings blowing into wooden pipes. Behind her and up the boardwalk Elizabeth could still hear voices from the theatre, stragglers from the audience standing around on the boardwalk talking, members of the company coming out of the stage door and discussing plans for the evening.
Elizabeth raised her head as a voice called, "Elizabeth Jerrold, is that you?"
She tried to keep the disappointment that it wasn't Kurt out of her voice as she called back, "Hi, Ben, where are you off to?"
Ben dropped off the boardwalk and clambered up onto the pile next to Elizabeth. "Hey, the tide's coming in."
"I know it is."
He turned and tried to look at her face, which was only a pale shadow in the starlight. "Come on down the boardwalk to Lukie's and have a hamburger with me."
"I'll treat you," Ben said, still trying to read her expression.
"I can't." She put her head down on her knees.
"Waiting for Canitz?" There was a trace of anger in Ben's voice.
"Listen, Elizabeth," he said, "maybe I'm the last person to speak to you about this, but I've been around and I just want to tell you you're riding for a fall."
"Anything else you wanted to say?" Elizabeth asked him.
"Nope. Where do you suppose Jane and John Peter dug up those recorders? That melancholy stuff they're playing's bad for my mood. My gosh, the divine Sarah Courtmont stank tonight, didn't she? She blew her lines twice." Ben reached down the length of his immensely long, immensely thin legs, took off one of his shoes, and shook out the sand, almost losing his balance and toppling off the pile. "I don't know why that dame thinks she can act," he muttered as he managed to put the shoe back on without falling.
"I'm not a big fan of hers either, but most of the kids think she's magnificent," Elizabeth said, looking surreptitiously at the luminous hands of her watch. It was almost midnight.
"What a dump this is," Ben said. "What made you come here anyhow, Liz?"
"It was the only place I could get a scholarship."
"Scholarship, my eye," Ben snorted. "You're paying J. P. Price twenty bucks a week for room and board, aren't you?"
"Yes." Elizabeth looked at her watch again. Barely a minute had passed. And Kurt had not come.
"I swore I'd never be an apprentice," Ben said. "So J. P. Price offers me room and board in exchange for being assistant stagemanager and all I am is an apprentice who works harder, that's all. And we're so much better than the professional company and the stars--I mean you and me and Jane and John Peter--that's the worst of it. I've never seen such a bunch of secondstring hams in my life." He pulled off his other shoe. "There's more sand in my shoes than on the beach."
"What about Valborg Andersen?" Elizabeth asked, reaching out to steady Ben as he struggled to tie his shoelaces. "Don't you think she's good?"
"Now there's an actress," Ben admitted. "I am enjoying watching her rehearse, so I guess it's worth the rest of the summer just to see that, but I don't think she should be doing Macbeth . Her Lady Macbeth stinks."
Elizabeth scratched a mosquito bite on one of her long suntanned legs--her legs, though less skinny, were almost as long as Ben's--and looked at her watch again. Then she turned around and looked back across the boardwalk at the theatre. Now the last of the audience had dispersed and the building was dark, except for a light in J. P. Price's office. She couldn't see the back where the dressing rooms were. Perhaps Kurt was still talking to someone in one of them. "I guess Miss Andersen knows what she's doing," she told Ben.
"You're so wrong," Ben said. "It's just the great ones like Andersen who don't know what they're doing."
"Okay. You've been around and I haven't, so I can't argue with you," Elizabeth agreed, infuriated, "but you are lucky that you get to watch Miss Andersen rehearse. All the apprentices wish they could watch the professionals and the stars rehearse, but Mr. Price won't allow it." Elizabeth then laughed and said,"When I saw Price about coming here I told him I'd played Lady Macbeth at school and he told me he wasn't planning to produce Macbeth. I can hardly wait to see it on Monday."
"I bet you pray to that big picture of Valborg Andersen you have on your bureau," Ben said.
"If I'd lived a few thousand years ago when graven images were still permitted, I probably would," Elizabeth admitted.
From the direction of the theatre they heard a voice, too blown by the wind to identify, calling, "Hoo-oo, Liz Jerrold!"
Elizabeth twisted around on her pile, cupped her hands to her mouth, and called back, "Hoo-oo!"
"Telephone!" the voice said.
"Okay," Elizabeth yelled, disappointed once again that it wasn't Kurt. She jumped off her pile, landing lightly in the wet sand. A wave licked at her sandals. "Now, who on earth would be telephoning me?" she asked Ben, and a vague feeling of unease spread over her. "If Kurt comes, tell him I'll be right back, will you please?" she added.
"Sorry, toots," Ben said, scrambling down from his pile. "The gaseous activity of my stomach will not be denied. I'm going down the boardwalk for some food."
Elizabeth crossed the sand to the boardwalk, pulled herself up, and stood, a tall slender shadow in the darkness, looking down at Ben.
"Give me a hand," Ben said plaintively. "You know I am not athletic."
Elizabeth extended a hand, which Ben clutched as he managed to clamber up beside her, panting. "It's the awful life Ilead, turning night into day, as my dear grandmother would say. Come down later to Lukie's and tell me who the call is from."
"Maybe," Elizabeth said, and turned and ran toward the theatre.
In the office Mr. Price was putting away some papers. "Call operator twenty-three," he told her, "and put out the lights and lock up when you're through."
"Okay, Mr. Price."
"And be in the box office at nine tomorrow morning, will you, Elizabeth?"
"I'll miss my classes--" Elizabeth started, then stopped. "Okay, Mr. Price."
"Good night, darling," Mr. Price said with automatic affection, and left.
Elizabeth picked up the telephone and asked for operator twenty-three.
"You have a call from Jordan, Virginia, Miss Jerrold," the operator told her, and Elizabeth's heart began to beat with apprehension. If the call was from Jordan, it meant that it must be from her aunt with whom she had lived since her father's death, and Aunt Harriet Jerrold would not call except for bad news. Elizabeth heard the telephone ringing and she could imagine it ringing in the dark, narrow hall of the house in Jordan. It's after midnight, she thought. Why on earth would Aunt Harriet be calling me at this time of night?
The phone kept ringing, and after a while the operator said, "There doesn't seem to be any answer, Miss Jerrold. I'vebeen trying to get you since eight o'clock this evening and either the line was busy or you couldn't be reached. Do you think I should try again in twenty minutes?"
"No," Elizabeth said, "it's too late now. I'd better call in the morning. Shall I ask for you?"
"I won't be on in the morning, but ask for operator nineteen and she'll take care of you."
"All right. Thanks." Elizabeth hung up and a sick feeling of apprehension settled in the pit of her stomach. She looked around the small office, starkly painted white. On the wall was a calendar, opened to the month of August, 1946, showing the schedule for the rest of the summer. Most summer-stock theatres did a play a week, and this theatre was no exception. There are four more plays to learn from, Elizabeth thought wistfully. Next to the calendar was the box office window.
Elizabeth reached up to the neat cubbyholes to touch one of the stacks of pink and blue and green tickets which she would be selling the next morning. Under the green money box was a large mimeographed seating plan of the theatre, and on this she would mark off all the tickets she sold. She rather enjoyed sitting on the high stool by the ticket window and chatting with the people who would be seeing the play that night or later on in the week; she had come to know several who returned each week, and tried to always give them the choicest seats. I love everything about this place, she thought. Ben can say anything he likes about it, but I've loved every minute of this summer so far.
"Liz!" a voice called. "Are you there?"
"I'm here," Elizabeth called back.
After a moment Jane Gardiner's slight figure appeared in the doorway. Ben had been in the theatre since he was a child, only taking a break for college at his father's insistence, but it was Jane, fresh out of drama school, who seemed to have the wisdom the rest of them lacked. Elizabeth always felt tall and clumsy beside her, though Jane said that Elizabeth was a Viking, and she herself the product of a decadent civilization.
"Ben told me you had a long distance call," Jane said, "so I thought I'd come over and make sure it wasn't bad news."
Elizabeth shook her head. "The operator said she had a call from Jordan for me and that she'd been trying to get me all evening. But when she rang just now, there wasn't any answer. It must have been Aunt Harriet. And Aunt Harriet never answers the phone after ten o'clock. If anybody called to tell her the house was on fire, it could just burn down if it depended on her answering the phone. I do hope she isn't ill or something."
"Probably just wants to talk to you," Jane said.
"Not Aunt Harriet. It's bound to be something bad or she wouldn't call." Elizabeth frowned and tried to imagine what particular bad thing might be responsible for the call.
"Now, don't go brooding, Liz," Jane told her severely. "John Peter says you worry too much about things, and he's right."
Elizabeth sat down in Mr. Price's swivel chair. "Aunt Harriet hated having me come here this summer. She'd do anything in the world to get me back. She thinks, as I believe I have told you before, that the theatre is an invention of Satan."
"What gets me," Jane said, sitting on a corner of the desk and resting her delicate feet on the edge of the big tin wastepaperbasket, "is if she hates the theatre so, why did she let you come here in the first place? She gives you the twenty a week room and board, doesn't she?"
"I wouldn't be here otherwise." Elizabeth picked up a glass paperweight that had a snowman in it, and shook it to set up a cloud of snowflakes falling inside. She watched it intently. "Father didn't have a penny when he died. Teachers don't make much money, as you know, and Father didn't even teach in a university--he taught at a boys' school--and he didn't have any sense about money anyhow. Aunt Harriet took me because it was her Christian duty, and not because she wanted me. Please, Jane, if you ever see me doing anything because it's my Christian duty, stop me."
"You aren't apt to," Jane said. "You're too good a Christian."
Elizabeth smiled at her, then looked at the snow that was still falling, very gently now, inside the glass globe. "It was kind of a bet. Aunt Harriet doesn't make bets, of course, but that's what it was."
"What was the bet?" Jane asked, upsetting the wastepaper basket and spilling papers all over the floor. "Darn," she said, and got down on her hands and knees to clean up the mess. It always amazed Elizabeth that in positions that would make anybody else look awkward, Jane still managed to be graceful.
"She said that if I'd major in chemistry at Smith instead of dramatic arts, and if I graduated with honors, she'd let me go to a summer theatre." Elizabeth, too, was now down on her hands and knees, helping Jane cram papers back into the basket. "I guess she thought if I majored in chemistry I might forget about the theatre. Well, I didn't forget about the theatreand it was kind of a challenge, so I just managed to squeak through with honors, no magna or summa cum laude, just plain cum laude, but anyhow it was honors and she hadn't specified. She made a fuss and tried to get out of it but I'd already got my scholarship here so I threw a scene about her word being no good and how hard I'd worked and how little twenty dollars is to her and all that. I was really stinking, Jane. I feel terribly ashamed whenever I think about it. But I had to do it, and no matter how guilty I feel I know I'd do it again."
"Yes, I know," Jane said, sitting down on the floor and leaning back against the wall. "I've never seen anyone look more determined than you did last spring in Price's office."
That day in Mr. Price's office in New York, Elizabeth thought now, had been the turning point of her whole life. If it had not been for that day last spring, none of the summer--working in the theatre, getting to know Kurt, beginning a completely new life--would have been possible.
Even then she had been aware of it. Sitting in the anteroom of Mr. Price's office, she had thought, How strange to know that the whole course of my life can be changed today in this dingy office.
But it was true. It was so frighteningly true that her hands had felt cold with fear and her heart had beat so fast that for a moment she was afraid that she might faint in the hot stuffiness of the little room. Although it was an unseasonably hot April day, steam hissed in the radiator, and there was no window in the anteroom. Even the office door to the main hallway was closed.
Because she had not been able to sit still another moment, she went over to the receptionist. "My appointment with Mr. Price was at one o'clock and it's after two now," she said.
"Yeah?" The receptionist looked at her with a hot, annoyed face.
"I mean--he's still going to see me, isn't he?"
"You've got an appointment card, haven't you?"
"Okay, then, relax. Sit down. Though why you want to see him I don't know. I'm sure he doesn't want to see you."
Elizabeth sat down again. She felt miserable and young and more than snubbed. She looked at her feet because she was afraid that if she looked at the others waiting in the room she would find scorn in their faces.
"Don't let it get to you," the girl next to her said. "I've just been in an office where the receptionist was nice enough to say 'Thank you for coming in' after she told me the cast was all set. They're not all like the sourpuss here. Though with the second-rate theatre Price is running, I don't know why we're all hanging around here like a lot of trained seals waiting for him to throw us a fish."
The door to the hall opened and a young man entered. The moment he came in, a slight, pleasant smile on his face, Elizabeth saw that there was something different about him, that he was not like anybody else in the room. And then she realized what the difference was: he was the only one who was not nervous.
He walked over to the receptionist's desk and said, "Hi, Sadie, how's my duck today?" He had a slight accent.
The sour face was surprisingly pretty when it smiled. "Oh, dying of the heat, Mr. Canitz. Otherwise I guess I'll survive. You want to see Mr. Price?"
"If he's not too busy."
"Oh, he always has time to see you, Mr. Canitz. Go right in."
The young man smiled his pleasant smile at the room full of hot, nervous people, and opened the door to Mr. Price's office. Elizabeth looked in quickly and saw that it was very like the anteroom, except that it had a large open window and a brief, welcome gust of cool air blew in at her. Mr. Price was sitting at his desk talking to a young woman with blond hair, and he waved his hand genially at Mr. Canitz. "Oh, come in, Kurt. I want you to meet this young lady."
Then the door shut and heat settled back over the room.
"If I had any sense," the girl next to Elizabeth said, "I'd leave this hellhole and go home. And so would you."
"Home," Elizabeth found herself answering, "is the last place I'd go."
"Well, then, I guess you have a point in hanging around. Why don't they at least open the door into the hall?" She appealed to Sadie. "Couldn't you turn off the heat or something?"
"No, I can't," the receptionist snapped. "The radiator's broken. And I'm just as hot as you are. Hotter. If you don't like it here, why don't you leave? I tell you, he isn't going to hire anybody else. He's got the whole season set. You're wasting your time."
The girl turned back to Elizabeth. "That's the way people get ulcers. People with vile natures always get ulcers. If I stay here much longer, I'll get ulcers, too."
"But is it true?" Elizabeth asked.
"That he has the whole season set."
"Of course it isn't true. She only said it because she's in a vile mood. What's your name? I'm Jane Gardiner."
"I'm Elizabeth Jerrold."
"Listen, I don't mean to butt in," Jane said, "but don't be nervous. You're practically making the bench shake. After all, the world isn't going to end if Price doesn't give you a job. Nothing's that important."
"But it is," Elizabeth said. "For me it is."
The door to the office opened again and Kurt Canitz and the blond woman came out. Mr. Canitz had his arm protectively about her, and he ushered her gallantly to the door and said goodbye. Then he sat down and smiled at Sadie and looked slowly around the anteroom. His eyes rested on Jane, on Elizabeth, on a little man in a bowler hat. Sadie picked up a stack of cards and called out, "Gardiner."
Jane rose. "That's me. Well, this is only the fifteenth office I've been in today. What've I got to lose?"
Elizabeth watched her as she walked swiftly into the office, shutting the door firmly behind her. Yes, Jane was obviously a person who knew her way around theatrical offices. She had a certain nervous excitement, like every actor waiting to hear about a job, but it was controlled, made into an asset; it gave a shine to her brown eyes, a spring to her step. Elizabeth felt that Jane was dressed correctly, too. She wore a pleated navy blue skirt and a little red jacket. Her hair was very fair, a soft ashblond, and on her head she wore a small red beret. Elizabeth felt forlorn in the other girl's absence, and suddenly foolish. She herself wore a simple blue denim skirt and white blouse, and she felt that she belonged much more on a college campus than she did in a theatrical office on Forty-second Street in New York. If someone as desirable as Jane had been in fifteen offices that day and still did not have a job, then what was Elizabeth thinking of when she was letting everything in the world depend on whether or not Mr. J. P. Price took her into his summer theatre company?
But Mr. Price was Elizabeth's only hope after her twenty letters of inquiry to summer-stock companies. Many of the managers had sent back form letters that offered her opportunities to apprentice--but at a two- or three-hundred-dollar tuition fee. Mr. Price had simply sent her a card telling her to be at his office at one o'clock, April 14, and he would see her then.
Elizabeth looked around at the dingy anteroom; the buffcolored walls were cracked and some of the cracks were partially covered with signed photographs of actors and actresses of whom she had never heard. There were no familiar names like Judith Anderson, Katharine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne, Ethel Barrymore. The air smelled like stale cigar smoke from the little man in the bowler hat who sat stolidly on a folding chair and surrounded himself with a cloud of heavy fumes.
Elizabeth noticed Kurt Canitz was writing busily in a small notebook. He looked up and stared directly at her for several seconds, then scribbled something else in the notebook, tore off the page and gave it to Sadie with a radiant smile, and left.Elizabeth wondered what his connection with the theatre was. Was he an actor, a director, perhaps a producer? Certainly he was connected with Mr. Price's summer company.
Again the door of the office opened and Jane came out. She grinned at Elizabeth.
"Did you get a job?" Elizabeth asked eagerly.
"Well, not exactly the job I went in for, but at this point it'll do. I'm going as an apprentice, which I swore after last summer I'd never do again, but this time at least it's a scholarship."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "That's wonderful!"
"Thanks," Jane said. "Good luck to you, too."
Sadie was looking at her cards. "Jerrold," she called.
Elizabeth stood up.
Jane took her hand. "Good luck," she said again. "Good luck, really. I hope I'll see you there."
"Thanks," Elizabeth answered, and went into the office.
"Well, what can I do for you?" Mr. Price asked, looking Elizabeth up and down until she flinched.
"You can give me a job," Elizabeth said, and was surprised at how calm her voice sounded.
"And what kind of a job are you looking for, my dear?"
"A job in your summer theatre. As an actress." Elizabeth felt that her voice sounded flat and colorless; anxiety had wiped out its usual resonance.
"And what experience have you had? What parts have you played?"
Elizabeth ignored the first part of his question. "I've playedLady Macbeth and Ophelia and I've played Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder and Sudermann's Magda, and the Sphinx in Cocteau's The Infernal Machine."
"A bit on the heavy side, wouldn't you say?" Mr. Price asked her. "And aren't you rather young for Lady Macbeth or Magda? How about something more--recent--and perhaps a little gayer?"
"Well--I've played Blanche in Streetcar--oh, I know that's not very gay, but it's recent--and--and--I've done some Chekhov one-acts. They're not very recent but they're gay--"
"And where did you get all this magnificent experience?" Mr. Price asked her. "Why, after all this, have I never heard of you?"
"At college," Elizabeth said, looking down at her feet.
"My dear young lady." Mr. Price sounded half bored, half amused. "Perhaps you do not realize, but I am running a professional theatre. I am sure you were very charming and very highly acclaimed at college, but I am really not contemplating producing Macbeth or Magda or even The Infernal Machine. So what do I have to offer you?"
"All I want," Elizabeth said desperately, "is--anything."
"Maids, walk-ons, working in the box office. Anything."
"I take a certain number of apprentices," Mr. Price said. "They take classes from the company actors. We use the star system. We do a new play every week and the company professionals rehearse all week in bit parts. Then the star arrives on Sunday. The stars have one rehearsal with the company before the show. Although one or two of them will direct the playsthey are starring in, and those actors will be there longer. If I can, I use the apprentices in at least one walk-on part during the summer. The fee is three hundred dollars."
Elizabeth shook her head. When she spoke her voice trembled. "I--borrowed the money to come to New York to see you today. I--I--"
"And I suppose if I didn't give you a job you'll jump off the Empire State Building? Or into the Hudson River? Or perhaps the East River would suit you better."
"That's not funny," Elizabeth said with a sudden flare of anger. "Would you really laugh if you were responsible for someone's death?"
"If you did anything so foolish as to kill yourself, I wouldn't be responsible. You would." Mr. Price's voice was calm and reasonable.
"As it happens," Elizabeth said, anger still directing her words, "I agree with you. And I do not approve of suicide under any conditions. However, a weaker character in my circumstances might."
Mr. Price smiled. "Are your circumstances so very particular ?"
"To me they are. You never know what people's circumstances are."
"Perhaps I can guess some of yours. You go to a good college and major in drama. Your family has a thoroughly adequate income."
"Wrong," Elizabeth said. "I go to a good college but I major in chemistry and I am on scholarship and I have no parents. I was president of the Dramatic Association and took some theatrecourses in Theatre Workshop at school. I graduate later this spring."
"I stand corrected."
Elizabeth looked at him, tried to smile, and said, "And now, since you haven't a job to offer me, I'll say goodbye and go throw myself under a Fifth Avenue bus."
The door to the office opened and Sadie thrust her head in. "Say, Mr. Price, I almost forgot. Mr. Canitz left me a note to give you."
Mr. Price read the note and handed it to Elizabeth. Kurt Canitz had written, "Give the tall girl with glasses a scholarship. I have a hunch about her."
Mr. Price looked at Elizabeth. "You are tall--rather tall for an actress, incidentally--and you wear glasses, so I assume Kurt means you. By the way, how does it happen that you don't take off your glasses for an interview?"
"I forgot," Elizabeth said. "I don't always wear them, but I really can't see well without them. I never wear them onstage, of course."
"I suppose I'll have to answer to Kurt if I don't at least have you read for me. All right. Read for me."
"If you like me, will you give me a scholarship?" Elizabeth asked.
"I'm known for--shall we kindly call it being shrewd?--about money, but as far as the theatre is concerned I also have a conscience," Mr. Price said. "I collect as many three-hundred-dollar tuitions from the apprentices as I can. If a girl can afford it, why shouldn't I take it? However, if I think a kid has possibilities, and they can't afford the tuition, I give them a scholarshipfor the summer and I work her--or him, as the case may be--like a dog. There are usually two scholarships for young men and two for women. I have both my men set and one of my women. You might possibly fit the other scholarship. The apprentices and most of the resident company live at a cottage a few blocks from the theatre. Of course the scholarship apprentices pay twenty dollars a week for room and board. Could you manage that?"
"I'll have to," Elizabeth said.
"I have a feeling that you are a hard worker," Mr. Price told her. "Also, believe it or not, I have a healthy regard for Kurt Canitz's hunches--and also for his dollars, which help finance the theatre. More of a respect for his hunches and his dollars than I have for his acting, I might add, though I could pick a worse director. Okay, now read something for me." He picked up a dog-eared copy of The Voice of the Turtle. "This is pretty much a classic in its own way," he said. "Maybe you won't feel too much above it."
Elizabeth stood up. "Mr. Price, I know you're laughing at me, and I know you have a perfect right to. Maybe the parts I've played are silly. I didn't do them because I expected to repeat my college triumphs on Broadway, but because they're parts anyone who really cares about being an actress ought to study, and because it was my one real opportunity to work on them--until I'm an established actress and can really do them if I want to. I have learned a lot from them that I can apply to anything I do."
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" Mr. Price asked.
"No. But I have to talk as though I were."
Mr. Price sighed. "Darling Miss Jerrold--it is Jerrold, isn't it?--there are so many like you. So many who believe in themselves as potential great ones--and many who don't have the handicap of being tall and wearing glasses--so many who have real talent. Do you know that with ten young women of equal talent only one of them can possibly succeed?"
"I'm willing to risk it," Elizabeth said.
Mr. Price sighed again. "All right. Read for me."
"What shall I read?" Elizabeth took the book from him.
"Just hunt for a longish passage. One of Sally's. Are you familiar with the play?"
"We did it in college. I directed it, though; I didn't act in it."
"Good. That means you ought to know it pretty well but you won't be giving me a rehash of an old performance. Found something?"
"Yes. Here's a speech of Sally's." Elizabeth read the speech slowly, not trying to force a quick characterization. She made her voice low and pleasant, her words clear and well-defined, but she felt that she was failing thoroughly, that Mr. Price expected a performance. When she had finished the speech she said, "I'm sorry it was so bad. I can't plunge into a character right away."
"No, and you had sense enough not to try," Mr. Price told her, and for the first time his smile was for her and not at her. "One of the greatest banes of my existence is the radio actor who gives a magnificent first reading and then deteriorates until his performance is thoroughly mediocre. Each time I cast a show I say that I won't be fooled, and each time I am fooled.Okay, Miss Jerrold. If you want to come under the terms I've outlined--as a scholarship apprentice--you may."
Elizabeth sat down abruptly. "Yes. I want to," she said, and her voice sounded as though Mr. Price had punched her in the stomach.
"Good. Give Sadie your address and she will drop you a line about trains and when to arrive and so forth. Also I will have her send you a note confirming all this so that once you get back to that good college of yours you won't worry about my forgetting you. Goodbye, Miss Jerrold. I'll look forward to seeing you at the end of June, and you, in the meanwhile, may look forward to a summer of hard work."
"Yes. Thank you," Elizabeth said, still sounding winded.
Mr. Price smiled at her again. "And one more thing. I hope you realize that I am offering you this opportunity not because of your reading, which, as you were aware, was barely adequate, but because of Mr. Canitz's hunch and my own whim. The theatre is not a reasonable place. You may as well learn that now." He held out his hand to her.
Elizabeth shook it and then, after giving Sadie her address, left the office. She almost missed Jane Gardiner, who was standing in the dim hallway leaning against a fire extinguisher.
"Hello, how'd you make out?" Jane asked her. "Thought I'd wait and see."
"I've got a scholarship," Elizabeth told her, beaming, and very pleased at Jane's friendly interest.
"Oh, good, I'm awfully glad. Look, let's go have a cup of coffee at the Automat to celebrate."
Elizabeth hesitated, then said, "I don't think I want any coffee, but I'd love to come while you have yours."
They went down in the elevator, both smiling with a vague and dreamy happiness at the prospect of the summer ahead of them. And to Elizabeth New York was no longer frightening but suddenly full of excitement and glamour, and the starkness of the Automat was vested in glory because Elizabeth Jerrold and Jane Gardiner were going there and perhaps one day other struggling young actresses would say, "Do you know, the great and famous Elizabeth Jerrold and Jane Gardiner used to come here!"
Elizabeth sat down at one of the tables and waited until Jane came back with two cups of coffee. "Just thought you might have changed your mind," she said casually. "If you don't want it, I'll drink it. Or, if you're broke or something at the moment--and heaven knows almost everybody in the theatre is--you can pay me back sometime."
"But that's just the trouble. I probably can't," Elizabeth said. Her voice sounded rather desperate.
Jane looked at her with friendly curiosity, then said lightly, "What's a cup of coffee between friends? Anyhow, I was referring to the golden future when we're both rich and famous and have our names in lights. Look, let's get to know each other. I'll give you my autobiography and you can give me yours. Though as for me, I'm a lot more exciting than my autobiography."
Elizabeth laughed. "Me, too."
"I'm just a damn good actress," Jane said. "How about you?"
"I'm a damn good actress, too."
"Good. Now we know the most important thing about each other. As for the unimportant details, I was born in New York and I've lived here most of my life. My father teaches higher mathematics at Columbia and I can't count up to ten. Neither can my mother, who is terribly beautiful but has never made me feel like an ugly duckling. I graduated from Columbia against my will and on my parents' insistence, though they're both very nice about my wanting to be an actress, and last winter I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and fell madly in love with a great young actor named John Peter Toller who also--and for this I got down on my knees and begged and it's why I took this scholarship rather than a job anywhere else though I did honestly and truly try to get a job; I told you I'd been to dozens of other offices today--anyhow where was I? Oh, yes, John Peter has a scholarship with Price this summer, too. He's been away for two weeks visiting his parents and during these fourteen days my life has been blighted. I feel as though I'm not breathing when I'm out of his presence. He's the oxygen in my air, the sun in my universe, the staff of my life. From this you may gather that he means a great deal to me, but please don't tell him because he knows it far too well already. Now tell me about you."
A sober, rather sad look came over Elizabeth's face. Then she said lightly, "There isn't much to tell. My parents are dead and when I'm not in college in Northampton, I live with my aunt in Virginia. She doesn't approve of the theatre. I graduate this year. As for men, I'm footloose and fancy-free, and I've no idea of letting an emotional entanglement hamper my career."
Jane laughed. "Now if that doesn't sound like a college student. My emotional entanglement, if you want to call it that, hasn't hampered my career a bit. It's helped it. I know more about life and humanity and understanding and compassion and knowledge--and therefore about acting too--since I've known my darling John Peter than I ever dreamed of knowing before. Just you wait, my girl. You'll see." Jane pushed back her chair. "I've got to dash now, I promised my mother that I'd meet her. Maybe we'll room together this summer. I do hope so. Anyhow, I'll be seeing you at the end of June."
"Right," Elizabeth said. "Good luck till then."
"And good luck to you, too."
They shook hands. Elizabeth watched Jane walk swiftly out of the Automat, erect, graceful, assured, and somehow more alive than anyone else in the restaurant. Elizabeth realized that Jane was probably well in advance of her as an actress, and then thought happily, But I'll learn! Now I'm being given my chance to really learn with a professional company!
Everything began then, she thought, stuffing the last few papers into Mr. Price's overturned wastepaper basket. That was even the first time I saw Kurt. She watched Jane get up, push the wastepaper basket under Mr. Price's desk, and perch again on a corner of the desk.
"Jane," Elizabeth asked abruptly, "did you notice if everybody's gone, backstage? Is anybody left in the dressing rooms?"
"They've all gone ages ago," Jane told her. "You ought to know that. Ben locked up before he left. He always does."
"Did Kurt"--Elizabeth turned her face carefully away andmade her voice overcasual--"leave any message for me with you, maybe?"
"Nope," Jane said.
Elizabeth stood up. "I think I'll go on back to the Cottage and go to bed." She seemed suddenly to droop like a wilted sunflower. "I'm kind of tired and Mr. Price wants me in the box office at nine. Got a handkerchief, Jane? My glasses are filthy."
"Apprentices aren't supposed to work in the mornings," Jane said, handing her one of the small white squares of linen she always carried. "We're supposed to have classes in the morning."
"Sure, I know, but if Mr. Price tells me to be in the box office at nine, there isn't much I can do about it. Maybe he won't keep me long. I love being in the box office any other time." She blew on her glasses and wiped them with Jane's handkerchief.
"If Price is going to work you at all hours of the day, he shouldn't make you pay room and board."
Elizabeth sighed, handing Jane back her handkerchief. "I'd give my eyeteeth for room and board. I'd feel okay about Aunt Harriet, then. It's a lousy business, accepting money from people, especially when they don't want to give it. Let's go." She took the key out of the cash box and turned off the light, and they left the office. Elizabeth locked the door behind them and put the key in the pocket of her skirt.
"Want something to eat before we go back to the Cottage?" Jane asked.
"No, I don't think so."
"Dinner was a long time ago. I'll treat you."
"Thanks a lot, Jane. But I really don't want anything. You go ahead, though."
Jane shook her head. "I've already had a hamburger with John Peter and I told him to wait for me in the Cottage."
The Cottage, where all the apprentices and most of the professional company lived during the summer, was several blocks from the theatre and the beach. The theatre had once been a casino and the Cottage had first been a private home and then an orphanage. The casino went bankrupt and the orphans were moved to a larger and newer building. Even though the Cottage was set back from the beach, the floors were always sandy under the rugs and the sheets damp in cold weather, and it constantly smelled musty.
Elizabeth and Jane walked side by side on the sidewalk. "I'll bet your Aunt Harriet doesn't approve of your staying up late like this," Jane said.
Elizabeth grinned. "I think Aunt Harriet's fond of me--in her own way--but I know she doesn't approve of me. Your parents sound so wonderful, Jane, the way they really like you, and don't mind about your wanting to be an actress."
Even the darkness could not hide the forlorn look that suddenly fell on Jane's face. "They don't approve of John Peter," she said.
"I don't know, but it makes me unhappy anyhow."
"But they let you come here with him this summer," Elizabeth said.
Jane shook her head sadly. "It's just their way of doing things. They know if they tried to keep me away from him it'djust make it worse. But it's like your aunt hoping you'd like chemistry better than the theatre. I'll never like anyone better than John Peter."
They had reached the Cottage now and they climbed the stone steps in silence. There was only one dim light on in the large living room, which the apprentices, and occasionally the company, used for rehearsals. Dorothy Dawne, also known as Dottie, the same blond woman Elizabeth had seen in Mr. Price's office, and Huntley Haskell, another one of the professional actors, were sitting together on one corner of a sagging sofa, embracing passionately. This was nothing unusual, and Elizabeth and Jane, barely glancing in their direction, went slowly up the stairs. Elizabeth felt suddenly very tired. It wasn't a physical tiredness but a tiredness in her heart, because Kurt had asked her to meet him and then hadn't come.
Maybe he left a message for me with one of the others, she thought, and started to hurry.
The professional company lived in rooms on the second floor and the ten girl apprentices lived on the third floor. The male apprentices lived in a big dormitory room over the garage. Most of the paying girl apprentices had single or double rooms, but Elizabeth and Jane lived with two of the paying apprentices in a lopsided room under the eaves. The two paying apprentices had the large half and the big closet. Elizabeth and Jane had the small half and a curtained-off alcove for a closet.
The door to their room was open and the lights were blazing. John Peter and Sophie Sherman, one of Elizabeth and Jane's roommates, sat on Jane's bed. Ditta Coates, a paying apprenticewho lived down the hall, sat sprawled across the bed of their other roommate, Bibi Towne. Ditta was a plain girl of about twenty-nine who taught dramatics at a boarding school. In the large half of the room, Ben, draped in a sheet, Jane's blond hairpiece pinned to his dark hair, was doing the vial scene from Romeo and Juliet.
"'Stay, Tybalt, stay!'" Ben cried, waving his long arms wildly as Elizabeth entered. "'Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee.'" Draining a paper container of coffee, he fell, all arms and legs, across one of the beds. Elizabeth and Jane joined in the applause.
Ben laughed happily. "It's certainly the vile scene, isn't it?"
"'O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all hooping!'" Elizabeth said.
Ben raised one of his dark, peaked eyebrows. "And what, may I ask, is that from?"
Elizabeth grinned. "Celia, in As You Like It."
"Be careful of my hair," Jane warned, as Ben reached up and began tousling the hairpiece that looked so incongruous against his dark locks, his eyes as alive and eager as a puppy's.
"Now I'm going to be Melisande."
"Not with my hair you aren't," Jane said. "Give it here."
"What a brute you are." Ben reluctantly unpinned the hair. "What was your telephone call, Liz?"
"It was my Aunt Harriet and she'd gone to bed. I'll have to call her tomorrow morning."
"Bed at this time of night!" Ben cried, tossing Jane the hair."It's the shank of the evening." He took a brown paper bag off one of the bureaus. "I brought you a hot dog, Liz. It's all covered with mustard and pickle the way you like it."
"Ben, you're an angel," Elizabeth said, and pulled the hot dog, wrapped in innumerable paper napkins, out of the bag. "I'm going to have to eat this out the window or I'll drip all over the room." Bless Ben, she thought. He knows how I hate to sponge off people, but he always sees that I get fed.
Sophie, who had hay fever and was always accompanied by Kleenex, threw her a box. "Here, Liz."
"Thanks, Soph." Elizabeth took a large bite of the hot dog, then asked with pretended casualness, "Any messages for me?"
Ditta shook her head. "Not a thing."
Sophie said indifferently, "What did you expect?"
But Ben turned to Elizabeth and said bluntly, "I saw Kurt Canitz going into the Ambassador with Sarah Courtmont."
For a minute Elizabeth looked at him furiously, then she turned away.
"That was mean, Ben," Ditta said.
"Well, it's the truth."
Ditta rose, saying, "If I'm going to keep awake at any of the classes tomorrow morning, I've got to get my beauty rest. Good night, all." She yawned widely and ran her fingers through the rather stiff permanent in her brown hair, hair that was already beginning to show a few threads of grey.
As she left, Elizabeth yawned, too. "If I don't get to bed, I'll never get to the box office by nine. Come on, kids."
"You mean you want us to go?" Ben asked with incredulity.
"In words of one syllable, yes. It's our turn to set tables tomorrow morning, Ben. Mind you don't oversleep."
"And mind you don't wake me when you get up, Ben," John Peter said. He bent over Jane and gave her a quick kiss.
"Good night, darling," Jane said.
"Good night, sweetheart."
Ben patted Elizabeth clumsily on the shoulder. "It's a pity your attention is otherwise occupied, Liz. We might have made such a lovely couple." Then he raised one of his peaked brows and looked around. "Where's the charming fourth roommate, by the way?"
Sophie shrugged; she had a petulant way of lifting her shoulders whenever she was envious or discontented that particularly annoyed Elizabeth. "Bibi is probably at the Ambassador or Irving's," Sophie said, "fraternizing with the professional company."
It's amazing, Elizabeth thought, how Sophie can make anything she says sound unpleasant.
Ben lounged in the doorway and said, "Why, I'll never know. The professional company stinks. Good night, kids. See you over the canned orange juice, Liz."
A voice from down the stairs shouted up, "Elizabeth Jerrold !"
Ben stuck his head out the door. "What?" he shouted back. Jane winced, as she always did at loud noises.
"Is Liz there?"
"Mr. Canitz wants her."
"Damn it, what does he want at this time of night?" Ben said. "Tell him you're asleep, Liz."
"But I'm not," Elizabeth said, and ran to the door. "Tell him I'll be right down," she called. Elizabeth's voice, though she raised it only slightly, easily reached down the two flights of stairs; instinctively she understood projection and during the summer had learned to add more to her native knowledge. Then she said, not looking at the others, "He probably wants me to type some letters for him or something."
"At this time of night?" Jane asked.
"Why not? Mr. Price had me taking dictation till two o'clock one morning." She looked hastily in the mirror, and ran her brush over the soft brown waves that never, to Jane's envy, had to be put up in bobby pins at night. "Well, goodbye," she said, and hurried out the door. Ben's clarion-clear voice floated down the stairs after her--and what Ben lacked in projection, he more than compensated for in volume--singing:
"Love is a little thing Shaped like a lizard. It runs up and down And tickles your gizzard."
Elizabeth quickened her footsteps and felt the color mounting to her cheeks.
Kurt Canitz was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. He stood leaning against the balustrade, his dark head as sleek and beautiful as a black leopard's, and held out his hands to her.
"Elizabeth," he said, "Liebchen, sweetheart. I'm sorry I didn't meet you after the show tonight."
Elizabeth said nothing.
"La Courtmont asked me to go up to the Ambassador with her for a drink and everybody else was going down to Irving's. It was my one chance to see her alone. I wanted to talk to her about the lead in a show I'm thinking of producing this fall." His voice was childlike and pleading.
"Sure," Elizabeth said. "It's okay, Kurt."
"She's certainly a beautiful creature," Kurt said as he put his arm about Elizabeth and led her out of the Cottage. They walked through the deserted streets to the boardwalk, and then in the direction of the Ambassador, at the other end of the boardwalk from the concessions and soda fountains.
"I hope you've been watching Courtmont this week, Elizabeth," Kurt said. "You can learn a lot about makeup from her. And lighting. That woman knows more about lighting than most electricians. A lot of good actresses don't know when they're in a spot and when they're in shadow. Courtmont manages to get all the light on her face and everybody else slightly shadowed. And she knows how to make up those big blue eyes of hers so that they look like two small individual spotlights of her own. Your eyes are--" He stopped for a moment, then asked in a tone of wondering surprise, "What color are your eyes, my Liebchen, my Elizabeth?"
"Grey," Elizabeth said.
Kurt laughed, rather apologetically. "It's odd how one remembers what eyes are like but doesn't remember what color they are. You have good eyes, Elizabeth. Wide apart. And nice lashes. And nice wavy brown hair. But you should put in a rinse to make it redder."
Usually Elizabeth seized on any of Kurt's suggestions like a seagull diving after a fish, but now she shook her head. "If I put in a rinse, it would look dyed. This way, what red there is is my own."
"It wouldn't look dyed if you had it done properly."
"I can't afford that sort of thing, Kurt." People with money never understand that other people don't have it, she thought. Even Kurt, who usually seemed to understand everything. Aloud she said, "I don't like dyed hair anyhow."
It was the first time she had ever disagreed with Kurt, and she felt quickly upset and unhappy.
But Kurt's arm tightened about her waist in an affectionate gesture, and he said softly, "It was just an idea, Liebchen. You're perfect as you are. I'm very fond of you, funny one, did you know that?"
Elizabeth's heart winged with happiness as it always did when Kurt spoke to her in that gentle, loving way.
But as to his question, she could give it no answer, because to think that Kurt Canitz was really fond of her was too exciting and too wonderful a thing to be believable. All she wanted to do was to cry out, I love you! but she just leaned against him and continued to walk beside him on the lonely boardwalk with the salty night wind pushing her hair back from her face.
I wonder when I first began to love him? she thought, and it seemed to her that it had been from that very first moment she saw him, that April morning when he had come walking into Mr. Price's office and she had realized at once that he was different from everybody else in the room. And then there wasthe first night they went walking on the boardwalk together. They had barely been there a week and it was opening night of the season.
That whole evening had been a wonderful one for Elizabeth, starting with the moment when the apprentices put on their long summer evening dresses in preparation for ushering in the first audience of the summer. Elizabeth was grateful that she had been on the Ivy Chain at college and that being on Ivy meant a pastel evening dress. She had made her own, a long corn-colored dirndl skirt and a deeper yellow blouse that bared both her shoulders.
"The reason I stick to dirndls is that they're inexpensive and easy to make," she had confessed to Jane, "and I'm really no seamstress."
"They look wonderful on you," Jane said, rather wistfully, "and they make me look dumpy. Look, honey, I have a big sort of dark amber cummerbund thing that would look gorgeous with that outfit. You take it. I never wear it."
"Oh, but I couldn't--"
"Listen," Jane said, rather sharply, "don't get your back up again. It is also blessed to receive. We're all perfectly aware that at the moment you are--shall we say--short of cash. Okay, that's a fact and what difference does it make? We know you aren't trying to milk us dry or take advantage of us or anything. Now take the dratted cummerbund or I'll think you think I don't have any taste. Oh, lawks, maybe that's the root of it. Do you think it would look awful?"
"No. I think it would look wonderful," Elizabeth said. "I thought of a sash of a darker color when I sewed the outfit, only for Ivy we had to be all one color."
"Well, will you take it then?" Jane asked. "Please. Or you'll really hurt my feelings."
"Thanks ever so much." Elizabeth knew that her gratitude was clumsy and ill-expressed. "I--just thanks, Jane."
"Oh, forget it," Jane said. "Here, let me put it on for you. Oh, Liz, it does look elegant! Come on, hon, we have to dash. If you're head usher you ought to be there before anybody else."
The opening went beautifully. The audience loved Mariella Hedeman, the company's character woman, as the crotchety old lady in the wheelchair, and Kurt Canitz as her murderer got three solo curtain calls and several shouts of "Bravo." The apprentices, standing in the back, jumped up and down and shouted and cheered. Afterwards they all went backstage. They were imbued with a glowing sense of vicarious importance. After all, Ben was really one of them and he was assistant stage manager; and Mariella Hedeman gave them voice lessons; and Huntley Haskell, who played the rather sweetly pompous young Englishman, was their acting coach. Even Marian Hatfield, their movement teacher, who had not been in this play, had joined everyone backstage. The apprentices felt they belonged in this company; they were part of a professional theatre ; these were their friends and colleagues who had just given the audience a pleasant and exciting evening.
Ben had met them anxiously. "Did you notice I was a little late on the second act curtain?" he asked with a worried frown. His blue shirt was moist with nervous perspiration and hisshadow loomed grotesquely on one of the flats like a beanpole of a giant.
"No," Jane said, "it looked perfect to me. I don't think it should have come down a second earlier."
"You mean you don't think anybody in the audience noticed it, then?"
"For crying out loud, no." John Peter sounded exasperated.
"Well, Kurt swore at me like mad. I didn't think it was late. Maybe he just had the jitters like the rest of us," Ben said, sounding relieved. "We're in, anyhow. They loved it, didn't they?"
"Wasn't Kurt wonderful?" Elizabeth cried.
"Oh, he was okay," John Peter said. "I've seen the part done a lot more subtly. Kurt doesn't know the meaning of shading. And of course his accent was out of place."
Elizabeth knew better than to argue with John Peter in the backstage crowd, especially as Jane was nodding in agreement. John Peter was opinionated at all times, and here, with people milling around, she would have no chance even if she shouted. "We'll discuss his performance later," she said. "I want to go see Miss Hedeman now. See you later, kids." She moved across the stage toward the long passage off which the dressing rooms were located.
Kurt Canitz's dressing room door was open. He was sitting at his table in his dressing gown, his makeup still on, talking to a group of people. He looked up as Elizabeth passed and called out to her.
"Yes, Mr. Canitz?" She stopped and waited to hear whether he wanted a cup of coffee or a fresh tin of Albolene.
"I want to talk to you. Wait for me, will you? I won't be long," he said, and smiled at her.
"Yes, Mr. Canitz."
Elizabeth went down the corridor and spoke briefly to Miss Hedeman and Huntley Haskell. A group of apprentices was in Dottie's dressing room. Elizabeth had not liked her performance. "You can't play that girl with glamour," she had whispered indignantly to Jane. "The thing that gets her audience's sympathy is that she's pitiful and frustrated and doesn't know the score. Wouldn't you think that Kurt--or somebody--would have stopped her? Dottie, I mean?"
"It's a tough job trying to direct and act in a play," Jane whispered back. "Anyhow, I don't imagine La Dawne's easy to direct."
Elizabeth was rather disgusted at the overgracious way Dottie (and whatever was her real name? No one was christened Dorothy Dawne) was holding forth, and she was angry with the apprentices for fawning over her simply because she had made two or three grade-B movies. I don't suppose she's any older than Jane or I, she thought, and she certainly doesn't have as much talent. Either of us would have been better in that part.
She did not admit to herself that Dottie's lack of talent was not the only thing that annoyed her.
In spite of his promise not to be long, it was after one on opening night when Kurt was ready to leave. Most of the apprentices and the company had already departed. They had gone down the boardwalk to Irving's, the nightclub that was very popular among the company and the more affluent apprentices.Jane and John Peter had been there once that first week, and had said that once was enough, but this evening they tagged along with everybody else.
"After all, there's only one opening night to a season," John Peter said. "Coming, Liz?"
Elizabeth was glad she had a legitimate excuse. "Nope. Can't. Mr. Canitz asked me to wait."
"What for?" Jane asked curiously.
Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't know. Letters to type or something, I suppose."
"As long as he doesn't ask you over to his hotel to show you his etchings," Jane said.
Elizabeth laughed. "Don't be a nut."
She waited in the corridor outside Kurt's dressing room. When his last visitor left he stuck his head out and saw her.
"There's my good little Liz," he said, "though not so little, are you, Liebchen? Come in and sit down."
She went into the dressing room and watched while he finished removing his makeup, wiped it off with cotton saturated with witch hazel, and repeated the process three times.
"Elizabeth," he said, "how old are you?"
"And this is your first experience in the professional theatre ?"
"Yes, Mr. Canitz."
"Are you enjoying it?"
She nodded. "Terribly."
"Yes. You look happy." He leaned back in his chair and sighed. "This tiny little dressing room! Really, it's more likesolitary confinement than a place for an actor to prepare for a role. Do you suffer from claustrophobia?"
She shook her head.
"Well, I do. I thought if that mob of well-meaning but stupid people didn't leave me alone I'd scream or at least be stupidly rude. And the thought of going to Irving's, that mediocre little boîte de nuit--I should get claustrophobia all over again if I went there. I think that I shall telephone and say that I have a headache and have had to go home to bed, and will everybody please have a drink--two drinks--on me. No. Better yet. I shall donate the entire party. That would more than make up for my absence, don't you think? That would make up for anybody's absence."
"No, they'll be disappointed," Elizabeth started, and meant it.
"Rubbish," Kurt said. "Anyhow, it is myself I am thinking of. I saw you passing by, looking so fresh and cool and clean as I was surrounded by that ravening mob, and I thought to myself, Kurt, if you could do as you chose this evening, what would you do? And my answer was, I would go for a walk and a talk by the ocean with Elizabeth Jerrold. Will you go for a walk and a talk by the ocean with me, Elizabeth Jerrold?"
"Yes, thank you. I'd like to very much." Her heart beat with excitement. Me, she thought unbelievingly. He wants to go for a walk with me! And on opening night!
As though reading her thoughts, he said, "So much is made of opening nights, and by now opening nights and stupid parties are an old story for me. I'm going to call Irving's and then we can go."
Afterwards they walked on the boardwalk. Kurt talked and Elizabeth listened. He told her of his childhood in Sweden, of the beautiful castle where he had been born and brought up, of the cold, tragic woman who was his mother and the lecherous degenerate who was his father. His voice was taut with remembered unhappiness.
"Did you have a happy childhood, little Elizabeth?" he asked her. "The pastoral childhood that seems to be the birthright of all American children?"
She shook her head. "I don't think all American children have such happy childhoods, Mr. Canitz," she said. "That's just a myth."
"Please, please," he cried. "To you I am Kurt! Everybody else calls me Kurt, so why should you, you the most charming and unusual of all, be formal with me? Say 'Kurt.' I want to hear it from you."
"Kurt," she said softly.
He put his arm tenderly around her and felt the sudden uncontrollable rigidity in her spine. "Liebchen," he murmured, "you are twenty and you are bursting with a great talent and yet you stop suddenly still when I touch you, like a young doe startled by the sight of a hunter crouched in the hill. Why?"
She shook her head mutely.
"No answer?" he asked, and he took her face in his hands and turned it toward him and kissed her gently. Still holding her face, he pulled away, holding her gaze. He put his arm back around her and they continued walking in silence until he asked, "Elizabeth, forgive me, but was that the first time you have been kissed?"
She answered in a low voice. "No. But it might just as well have been."
"What do you mean?"
"It was the first time it meant anything to me."
"It did mean something to you?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"It meant something to me, too," he said.
That had started it, that evening, that first evening on the boardwalk. With that kiss it had been as though Kurt had reached bodily into her and taken her heart, as though he had procured it for his personal possession. She felt helpless when she was with him, whenever she thought of him, and now she understood the blind look that came over Jane's face whenever she talked of John Peter.
"What are you thinking?" Kurt asked her.
"I was remembering opening night," Elizabeth told him, "when we went for our first walk on the boardwalk."
"So was I," Kurt said. "Oh, Liz, what a nice kid you are!"
Elizabeth laughed. "What brought that on?"
"Every once in a while I realize all over again how nice you are, and I just thought I'd tell you."
"Thanks." She tried to keep the upsurge of pleasure out of her voice. In spite of everything, Jane took John Peter for granted, but Elizabeth could never take Kurt for granted, could never be sure from one moment to the next that the wonderful times she had spent with him had existed in actuality and not in her imagination. For one thing, professionally John Peter and Jane were on a par, but whenever Elizabeththought of her own relationship with Kurt she was reminded of the stories of her childhood, the prince and the daughter of the woodcutter, the peasant's child and the lord of high degree.
"Want to turn back?" Kurt asked.
"Not unless you do." She did not want to turn back ever. She wanted to walk on and on with the houses thinning out so that on one side of them were sand dunes covered with harsh wild beach grasses and on the other the ocean reaching out in an ever-changing pattern to the horizon. "Look at the stars, Kurt. There are always more stars when there isn't a moon. Don't you love stars? Sometimes I love them so much I want to reach up and pick them and hug them the way I used to do with flowers when I was little; and then I cried because I crushed the flowers when I hugged them. Flowers don't like to be loved too hard. And my Aunt Harriet always tells me that people don't, either." Although her voice carefully ended the sentence as a statement, there was a question in her heart.
Kurt did not answer it. "Your Aunt Harriet's an old maid, isn't she?"
"Yes. She was engaged once, but her fiancé died of typhoid fever before they were married."
"I like being loved," Kurt said, though his voice was light. "How about you?"
Elizabeth tried to match the lightness of her voice with his. "I think it's wonderful."
Kurt stopped walking and turned her around so that she faced him. Then he bent toward her and touched her lips very lightly with his own. "You sweet child," he whispered.
Elizabeth leaned against him, her heart beating wildly long after the kiss was over.
"It's getting chilly," Kurt said. "There's a wind off the ocean tonight."
"Yes. We'd better go back," Elizabeth whispered regretfully.
"What are you whispering for, Liebchen?"
"I don't know."
"Let's not go just yet. Let's walk and talk for a little longer."
"Yes." She slipped her hand into his.
Kurt's voice became easy and conversational; Elizabeth often wondered at his ability to make transitions from one mood to another. "You and Jane Gardiner are the only apprentices in this place with a scrap of talent. Acting is an important thing to you, isn't it, my darling?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said seriously. "The most important thing in the world."
"The very most important?" Kurt asked.
Kurt leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers again. Then he said, "We should head back."
They walked hand in hand until they came to the Cottage. The light was now off in the living room and the night light glowed dimly in the hall, casting long shadows across the walls.
"Shall I come in with you and talk for a while longer?" Kurt asked.
She shook her head. "No. It's terribly late. I've got to go to bed now. Good night, Kurt."
"Good night, Liebchen." He did not kiss her again, butsqueezed her hand. Then he went out, and she could imagine him, a solitary figure, walking back up the boardwalk to the Ambassador Hotel.
Jane and her other two roommates were already asleep when Elizabeth went up, and she undressed quietly in the dark. Her alarm clock was set for the morning and she put it by her bed. The light in the boys' room over the garage was still on and she could see in her mind's eye Ben and John Peter and the others lying on their beds in the hot garage room, talking about the theatre, and life, and the theatre, and the world, and again the theatre ...
She lay in her bed and stared at a patch of faded, peeling wallpaper, and happiness blew over her like the breeze from the sea. I am in love, a voice in her sang over and over again. I am in love.
She never once remembered that she had to call her Aunt Harriet in the morning.
Copyright © 2008 by Crosswicks, Ltd.