MEG of the Limelight
Life did not look promising to Meg of the Limelight, until she found that faith is a light that brightens the darkest path and love makes a sturdy staff.
WITH the light of deviltry and sheer delight in her big amber eyes she danced, bare little legs flashing in the glare of the street lamp, while the dolorous out-of-work jangled a hurdy-gurdy tune. Saturday night in the east end of London. So far as the gamin was concerned it might have been Pancake Tuesday in Paradise. She was entirely happy, as it is given only to the extremely young to be happy. The yesterdays and tomorrows belong to another world when you’re eight and your heart is singing, even if your home is in Shadwell.
The instrument twanged on:
“Nobody but you an’ me 'Way down there in Tennessee.”
The hang-dog handle-turner shifted his weight to the other foot.
"It's abaht time for a drink, ain’t it, Bill?” he suggested to his partner as the last wheezy note died; Bill, never reluctant in such matters, silently slid between the shafts and headed for the bright windows of a hostelry.
Two amber eyes followed the barrel organ, their joyous light fading slowly. The child stood on the kerb, still exhilarated, lips parted in an unconscious half-smile, a graceful little figure in her attitude of listlessness, tawny ha;r dangling over a faded cotton frock. A man who had paused momentarily to watch her antics still stood there. He made his living out of the stage and in his way he was an artist.
“Natural!” he muttered. “Natural as God above made her. Dances just as she feels. Pity they don’t stop like that!"
But for the fact that he walked on and forgot about the gamin in a cotton frock, she might then and there have changed her career, which consisted chiefly of avoiding school as much as possible and nursing the O’Riley twins in Snargate Passage. As a nurse, in a few hours, she could earn a cup of tea and a slice of bread with a suggestion of margarine on it. And at another house there was a woman who always let her sleep on a sort of mattress in a room where other children slept. Meals were a bit irregular. and lacking in the precise ingredients which learned doctors might have prescribed; but, if parents will be so careless as to die leaving a scrap of humanity unprovided for in East London, the scientific administration of calories goes somewhat astray.
HP HE RE were times when little Meg Blane of the bare Ilegs and faded cotton frock stole, rather than go hungry, and the language of the gutter came ever readily to her lips, chiefly, perhaps, because the mother of the O’Riley twins had no delicate feeling of restraint concerning a round oath or so. When you were bom in Snargate Passage and still live there it isn’t easy to get out of the way3 of Snargate Passage, especially if you know of no reason why you should get out of them. And so Meg developed, a child of the slum-jungle, with growing selfreliance as the outcome of ceaseless warfare with her own small fists and wits against a relentless world. And always
a hurdy-gurdy, which was the nearest thing she knew to music, drew her, set something within her a-tingle, impelled her to movement. That was how she came to know Joe Emmett before her ninth birthday. Joe’s mind must have ranked a shade higher than that of most other hurdy-gurdy grinders, for one night as he was turning the handle outside the “Jolly Sailors” two definite things penetrated his intelligence while the elfin urchin capered to his tune. Firstly small coins were coming in a shade more quickly, and secondly it was the elfin urchin and not his music that had collected the small crowd.
With his disengaged hand he rubbed a stubbly chin, as a great financier might stroke his beard reflectively on the birth of a great thought. It was with the air of a true impresario that he pondered the point and then, perhaps because he had the gambling instinct, he decided to take a chance.
“ ’Ere, Vi-let, d’you want to earn tuppence?” Crude, perhaps, for an impresario who was launching into her true world one of the greatest vaudeville stars of a decade or two. But it was sound business.
Like a faun startled at play Meg stood for a moment on tip-toe. Then, with arms akimbo, came down on her heels and regarded the man suspiciously. Twopence was a considerable sum to her in those days.
“Who’re yer kiddin’?” And yet she was not without hope. Twopence!
“I’m not kiddin’. Follow me, and when I start playin’, you dance. But run if you see a p’leeceman, or maybe I’d get pinched. ’Ere’s your tuppence an’ maybe I’ll make it more, see?”
Meg saw, and laughed, but she fulfilled her first contract. And because she was a born actress to whom a streak of genius had descended in some queer way, she more than justified the judgment of Joe Emmett, even to the point where a policeman cast a judicial eye upon the scene. Meg artlessly ceased to dance, and merged like a shadow into the knot of spectators, only to reappear while Joe was playing again after he had gone down a side street and turned two corners.
The contract had run a full two hours when Joe sent her home, with a few coins clutched in her hot little palm.
“You’ve ’ad enough for one night,” he pronounced. “I’ll be in front of the ‘Jolly Sailors’ at six termorrer. Cornin’?”
The coins in Meg’s hand felt big. It didn’t seem real, this easy wealth.
“Yus, aw right,” she said; and dreamed that night of her new profession. Mingled with it were childish castles in the air, yet curiously it wasn’t around the wealth that her dreams centred. She was a fairy with wings and she danced everlastingly to sounds that never yet emanated from a hurdy-gurdy. When she awoke Meg sat up on her mattress and remembered that it wasn’t all a dream.
And if Joe Emmett, in the days that followed, drew in many shillings by employing Meg, it was merely the reward of his perspicacity. There was nothing skilled or trained'about the child’s dancing. It was just the crude interpretation of something she did not clearly understand, but it never became mechanical, until she grew tired. And on six nights a week, excepting when it rained, she drew sixpence, which spelled vast luxuries after bread and margarine for nursing the Riley twins.
MEG had danced in the gutter three whole months when Joe Emmett trundled his barrel organ to Hampstead Heath for Bank Holiday. There, while garnering a little harvest, he observed a man and woman closely watching the child.
“What do you make of her?” the man was asking his wife. She shook her head.
“It’s dancing and it isn’t dancing,” she declared. “Light as a feather, too, but that isn’t all. It’s in her. With training she’d probably be a winner.”
The man nodded.
“Catch ’em young,” he said. “Maybe it wouldn’t be worth our while, but if she’d learn, a girl like that certainly might brighten our show up. Look at her face, too! She’s full of devilment and she’s enjoying herself. You go and talk to her, my dear.”
When Meg paused for a rest Mrs. Frick—known on the vaudeville stage as Inez Claire—sat on the turf beside her. “You like dancing?” she asked.
Meg turned and after a quick survey felt with a child’s intuition that she was on safe ground.
“How old are you?”
“Did anyone ever teach you how to dance?”
Meg looked at the woman blankly and shook her head. Mrs. Frick beckoned her husband. .
An hour later Joe Emmett was gravely debating the situation. As an impresario who had discovered Meg, he
was morally entitled to his rights, but legally he had none; and moreover he actually had developed a rough sort of affection toward the child. There was something almost parental about him as he weighed the matter up with Mr. and Mrs. Frick. He wasn’t at all sure about theatrical people, anyway. Still, if they were going to give her a home and a chance in life, that was something. And in the evening as he trundled his machine wearily all the way back to Shadwell Joe Emmett felt curiously lonely. He had lost his little partner for ever. In a way it meant more than the extra shillings she had helped him to earn. There was something about the kid that you couldn’t
help liking. And in that reflection Joe Emmett had struck upon an abiding truth, even though the real magnetism of Meg Blane was as yet a thing undreamed of.
TT WAS .a bewildering world into which the Fricks lifted * her; a world filled with people who were quite abnormal according to the only standards she knew, a world filled with things that rather awed her. The bed they put her into that first night, for instance., It was a real bed, not made up of lumps like her old mattress, and it had white sheets.
And the woman—this Mrs. Frick—hadn’t once threatened to slap her. Indeed she’d kissed her good-night before blowing out the candle. There was a catch in it all, somewhere, of course. People didn’t treat little girls like this. Maybe it was some new sort of dream in which you thought all the time that it seemed true. The soft bed wooed Meg until, on the verge of sleep, she decided definitely that was the explanation. So that her astonishment was the greater when she awoke still in the enchanted world of Brixton. And if you don’t consider Brixton enchanting that is only because you haven’t fought for existence alone, with eight-year-old fists and wits, in bitter Shadwell; haven’t had to steal crusts when the gnawing in your stomach got too bad; haven’t always had to keep your teeth from chattering in bed on chilly nights.
Just a week later there was an anxious council of war between her new guardians.
“Sometimes I feel it’s hopeless,” said Mrs. Frick. “It’s wonderful the way she learns new steps. I never thought any child could grasp ideas so quickly, and she’s instinctively graceful with it all. But the moment she begins to go through those steps with the piano she’s different, somehow. She tries awfully hard to learn, but if she won’t dance as I’ve taught her to dance, when there’s music—”
Larry Frick patted his wife’s shoulder in kindly fashion.
“I’ve been watching, Susie, and I think I know what you mean, but don’t be downhearted. In my opinion Meg’s a real winner. I married you because you’re the finest woman on earth, and I always shall think so, but you can’t and you never could dance as that girl will eventually, if nothing happens to her. She’s nothing yet —it’ll take six months of the hardest kind of work before she’ll be fit to go on the stage. But I can see what the child is doing. She’s putting character into her work. Something of herself that you can’t understand any more than I can. Mark my words, if you kill that in her you’ll ruin the best that she’s got. On the other hand, if you’ll
be patient for a while we’re going to have a show that will go great.”
Six months later when Meg first went on the stage the hopes of Larry Frick were exceeded. The lights and the audience, instead of frightening Meg, acted as a tremendous stimulant. She took the part of an East End urchin, with a dozen “lines” to speak in her native dialect, and a dance depicting wild joy.
In the sanctum of the manager’s office afterwards Larry Frick had to face a new thought.
“I’m going to book your turn again,” said the manager, “but you’ll have to alter it. You’ve got it all wrong.”
“Wrong?” Larry Frick knew it was the best he had yet achieved.
“A-yop,” said the manager. “All wrong. The kid is the main thing. I’ve been in the show business for forty years and I know. You and Inez are all right for a back-ground with her if you like, but she’s the big piece of cheese. She’s new. She’ll have em’ eating out of her hand if you play your cards right. Please yourself. It’s none of my business except so far as my box office returns are concerned. And I know it hurts to let anyone else get the glory. But if you want fat contracts you’ll do as I say.”
FROM that point onward Larry Frick dis-. covered that he was a far better business man than mummer. In a small way Meg’s light began to shine in the theatrical firmament. There was nothing meteoric about her ascent and it involved an enormous amount of patience in teaching, just as it involved an incredible amount of work for Meg. For regular school had now been thrust upon her in addition to the theatre and hours of practice. But by the time she was ten years old she had her feet firmly on the ladder. Gradually, all this time, Larry Frick and his wife dropped further into the background, until when the girl was sixteen, they ceased to appear with her at all, and the stage name of Meg Blane began to have a definite significance. Already the critics were referring to her as a genius and Larry thought twice before he signed any contract on her behalf.
AND then Meg "was left terribly alone. The two • beings whom she had learned to love, who had lifted her up out of desolation and abject poverty, and taught her what life might mean, were, themselves swept into oblivion within a week of one another. To the girl, for a while, this was an unbelievable thing. The Fricks were all she had in the world and months drifted, on before she began to grow accustomed to her new loneliness. When an opportunity arose for her to try her fortune in the United States she seized upon it
and there, with a fervor that was entirely characteristic, threw herself into work. It was in New York that the phase of greatness in her career dawned, the States having meanwhile claimed her for their own. Meg was just twenty-two when Bernstein, the peer of agents, spread a document in front of her.
“Sign your name there on the dotted line, Miss Blane. Right!” He blotted it for her and smiled. “That contract makes you a real live genuine star so that every mother’s daughter who appears on the same bills with you will want to scratch your eyes out. And what they’ll say about you behind your back will be enough to damn an archangel. That’s one of the penalties. Never mind, you’re there now, and you’re there on your own merits, too, but what gets me is how you do it.”
“I love my work, Mr. Bernstein,” Meg explained.
“Maybe,” was the reply. “But so do a lot more people. Some of them have real talent—genius—too. But
there’s a difference. There’s nothing to touch your character studies of cockneys and that sort of thing. I don’t believe there ever was.”
The quick smile that countless thousands knew came to Meg.
“And you are really never going to let me go on as a perfect lady.”
“God forbid!” exclaimed Bernstein. “It’s the contrast between what you are and what you play that makes you. You’d never be commonplace, Miss Blane, but if you got away from your character studies you’d come as near being commonplace as a real cockney or a Nautch girl would be trying to do your job.” For a moment, looking into her face, Bernstein wondered what was going on behind those amber eyes of hers.
AND that night Meg met Steven Carey. She had - heard of him often enough. Everyone had heard of Carey, the dramatist, who ten years before took North America by storm with his play “Driftweed” and since then had slowly added to his own fame until with “The Merry-Go-Round” which had now run for nearly a year on Broadway, the seal was set upon his popularity.
Meg’s first glance at him was superficial, but a moment later, for some reason which in the afterward puzzled her, she regarded him steadily. Her knowledge of men was extensive. Always there were cavaliers ready to leap at the chance of taking her about. Her first proposal had come from a comedian when she was seventeen, and for at least a week then the glamor of the idea fascinated Meg. By the time she was twenty experience had taught her how to handle such situations gracefully; in the last two years life’s problem had at times grown complex, for more than once it had seemed that love Continued on page 40
Megof the Limelight
Continued, from page 17
was within her grasp. Yet Meg’s ideals were set on a high pinnacle; at the brink of capitulation she had drawn back, unsure.
Meg was conscious of a curious quickened interest when she met Steven Carey; and that interest was not toward Carey the dramatist, but Carey the man. There was nothing striking about his appearance unless it was his gray eyes in which lay deep thoughtfulness that might be mistaken for melancholy until one saw the kindling of humor there. His hair was untidy, he had artistic fingers and there was something fine about the set of his shoulders. Beyond these facts Meg noticed little at first, and yet there was that which held her and puzzled her.
“I have promised myself this meeting for nearly two years,” he told her. “It was bound to come, sooner or later.”
“I have been here in America all the time.”
“Yes, but I’m rather a fatalist, Miss Blane. Things have a way of happening, if they’re going to.”
And in less than a week Meg began to wonder often over that phrase of Carey’s. Because, slowly but surely, something was happening; something confusing and without precedent in her scale of reckoning. Neither was it of his deliberate seeking, nor hers. In the days that followed Meg sought to evade this thing by evading him, but it had invisible tentacles that stretched out, day and night, drawing resistlessly, sometimes gently as the sun draws a delicate flower, sometimes fiercely as moisture is drawn from desert sand. To her it seemed now that all this was inevitable; that the years which had gone before were but a preparation for these days. Fall drifted into winter, winter warmed into spring, and Steven Carey settled down to work on a new play, which cut short the drifting hours which he and Meg had spent together. He spoke of the play enthusiastically—this child of his brain consisting of ink and paper—and Meg grew almost to hate it, because it took him more and more away from her in thought and being. Sometimes he went for days together to his favorite workshop—a little bungalow down on the Sound side of Long Island, half a mile off any beaten track.
Once he took her there, leaving his car at a farm and walking with her through the still woods to the lonely little retreat.
“And do you always do your work here?” Meg asked him.
“Not always,” Steven answered. “It depends. When big burning ideas come freely and one just aches to put them on paper, any workshop is as good as another. I wrote the most effective lines in ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ on the back of an envelope in the subway. I come here when I’m in difficulties—when things seem to tie themselves into knots and won’t come straightened out.”
“And do all your knots come untied here?” Meg was badly perplexed these days by knots that wouldn’t come untied. If only she could find some place where things would automatically straighten themselves out, it seemed to her life would be considerably easier.
He looked at the girl thoughtfully before answering.
“Most of them,” he said; then because she shivered slightly, he insisted upon their returning to the automobile, and all the way home kept her in laughter; yet she knew, even laughing, that his thoughts were divided between the merriment that came from his lips and some other emotion that lay deeper.
The knots that bothered Meg Blane were tight, and they were to he pulled yet tighter. Life had run much more smoothly for her before this man came over her horizon, creating vague longings, filling her with wonderment and unrest, and stirring new ideals which ever conformed more closely to the ideals of Steven Carey. It was as though to her he was flawless, almost god-like. And yet if Steven Carey loved her he gave no direct indication of it. In a hundred
small ways, conscious and unconscious, he showed her that he liked to be with her, but of the bigger thing, the greater love which alone would satisfy her, there was no sign. At times Meg felt like some trapped creature with no hope of escape save to a world more hopeless than the trap which held her. For whatever lay in wait down the years, Meg Blane knew now that in one way only could she find happiness.
SPRING mellowed into June. Steven had taken Meg out to supper. She was in gay mood and nothing less than the gaiety of Girano’s would content her. There, all was froth and frills, but it brought no response to Steven Carey to-night. The deep thoughtfulness in his gray eyes struck chill into the heart of Meg Blane. It was as though a brooding shadow lay about and, fight it off though she would, Meg failed.
“There is something I want to ask you, Meg,” came from him at last. “Maybe it will be easy for you to give an answer; maybe it will not be so easy.” The foreboding of evil swept down upon her like a tangible cloud, and yet the beating of her heart quickened. “Yes?”
“It’s about heredity,” said Steven Carey, looking straight into Meg’s eyes. “Heredity and the things which go with it.”
“Yes?” Less nervously now. Vaguely Meg was girding her defences about her. The problem of heredity and the things which go with it had constituted one of the hardest knots in all her tangled skein.
“It’s one of the few things in this world from which we can’t ever escape,” said Steven, “but we can spare unborn children, can’t we?”
“Yes,” answered Meg, lips tightening. Some day she had meant to summon courage and tell him the truth, tell him of Shadwell, of Snargate Passage, of the crusts snatched hungrily, of all those early years and their bitterness—and the miracle of her escape. But, each time she tried, the words had been choked back as if something within her were pleading “A little longer, oh, a little longer!” And now it seemed already that there was accusation in those cold clear eyes of his. Dimly the words of Bernstein came to her. “What they’ll say about you behind your back will be enough to damn an archangel. That’s one of the penalties.” Meg’s fingers closed hard into her palms. “What exactly was it you were thinking we could spare the unborn children?” she asked.
“The things handed down,” said Steven Carey steadily. “Even two people who love—if one has a heritage of family traditions, is a product of generations who have lived cleanly, breasting the tide of life, always holding up their heads proudly, and the other is a product of the underworld—have they a right, these two, to marry? Is it not intrinsically wrong for them to mate?” The room with its garish lights was spinning round. Meg Blane could see Steven as in a mist; his voice sounded oddly distant. And yet with it all her brain was clear. Yes, horribly clear, because she could understand the exact value of his words, could understand the spirit of justice underlying that which he had said, and could see that pit of outer darkness into which his words were flinging her. Perhaps if she had faced grim truths earlier, had talked it out with Steven before the poison reached him from other lips, it might have been different. Bernstein, with all his wisdom, had never dreamed that this, also, might be part of the price she must pay.
And yet . . . the mists before her eyes cleared. In no sense would she have been justified in marrying Steven without talking it out. But mere words didn’t alter one’s blood and flesh, wouldn’t alter the eternal law of heredity. She had fought her way upward out of black obscurity—God only knew how she had fought!—and this last year or so wonderful ideals had come to her, but they weren’t achieved, She was the same Meg Blane who had nursed the Riley twins, only encased, now, in a thin veneer. A make-believe!
Of a sudden fierce resentment against
the ways of her forebears burned within. Meg—their _ spinelessness, slothfulness, lack of ambition for which she now had to pay the penalty. A make-believe!
“I—think—you’re—right,” she said slowly, doggedly; and feeling for her wrap, rose. She wanted to be alone, far from all this tinsel and glitter, alone with her thoughts and her agony. Barely conscious of what she said or of what Carey said, she left him and drove home alone, dry-eyed, white, there to lie for hours acutely awake, looking upon life as it must now be lived. She had given Steven the only possible answer to his question, but words didn’t alter one’s love any more than they altered one’s flesh and blood.
And Steven? She sat up on the thought. Those two apocryphal people of whom he had spoken—he presupposed they both loved. Then he must love her!
THE first thin light of dawn crept into the sky as Meg sat there. One of the to-morrows had come—one of those never-ending to-morrows without Steven. She would go and see Bernstein; recently he had spoken of a contract that would take her out of New York for many months. That could be arranged quickly, helping her to drown thought. But what of Steven? Would it be better for him—easier^ for both of them in the afterward—if they talked it out now, faced the naked truth, leaving, perhaps, something more beautiful to look back upon than that swift parting at Girano’s with its tinsel and false glitter? If a man and woman loved—really loved one another—could they part in that way? Could they?
After an eternity the clock tinkled nine. Soon Bernstein would be in his office. She must go there first and get that over. Mechanically Meg dressed, even pulled on her gloves and reached the door before swift unreasoning decision seized her. Picking up the telephone she gave Carey’s number. Presently a voice came over the wire.
“He isn’t there?” Meg was unprepared for it. “He went away by auto last night?” she repeated. “Where to?” Mr. Carey hadn’t said where he was going, she was told.
There was a click as she replaced the receiver. Where could Steven have gone? And why? A vision of the bungalow floated before her. Wasn’t that just where he would go? Suddenly Meg was filled with an emotion which was wholly feminine and wholly protective. For the moment she forgot her own deep hurt, her lacerated pride.
Five minutes later she was driving her own car toward the Sound without any definite plan excepting to be with him. He would be there; she was sure of that.
FROM the farm where she left her car she hurried through the woods. They were eerily silent, save for the call of some bird, singing passionately to its mate. Meg was sobbing. Her thin skirt and stockings ripped unnoticed on thorns. Steven! Steven! It wasn’t far now. There was the bungalow! Her feet flew over the mossy path.
And then she paused. He was there. At sight of Meg he rose from a chair on the veranda, face drawn and white.
“You!” He spoke quietly, almost incredulously. Then after a pause, “Go back, dear. Leave me to fight it alone.”
“I can’t, Steven. I couldn’t stay away, dear, knowing you might be here—like this.” She came closer, brimming over with tenderness and softness for him. “I had to answer that question of yours as I did last night, because, oh yes, Steven, because I love you and because I couldn’t ever say anything to you that wasn’t true. But it hurt—it hurt horribly. You never will know how much. You couldn’t. It meant the end—of everything that counts—for me.” She came closer yet. “Kiss me goodbye, Steven, my own. You never have, and it’s all there will be for me to remember.”
Swiftly he swept her into his arms; fiercely, hungrily his lips sought hers. The wild bird in the trees sang passionately to its mate; then left man and woman there in a magic silence. _
“Meg, sweetness,” he was saying to her presently, almost in a whisper, “this doesn’t make it easier, does it? It doesn’t alter the facts. Let me tell you now while we’re so close in spirit, and perhaps you’ll understand better. When I was a week old somebody left me on a doorstep in the Haymarket. Just a bundle, Meg, without a name or parents or anything.” He felt the sudden grip of her arms about him, heard the wordless sound that came from her, but hurried on. “Sometimes I’ve wondered — couldn’t help wondering—to what straits my mother may have been driven before she did it. There’s a pitiless side to the world that you know nothing about, Meg, and I hope you never will. She was probably starving. I’ve forgiven her for it long ago. That was my beginning, dear. They took me in at the door, and the slums of New York kept me alive somehow until I grew big enough to fight for myself. I sold newspapers in the streets when I was seven—did anything for a penny. Rags and hunger. Listen, Meg, I’ve even stolen food when things got too bad.” He swallowed awkwardly. “I feel better, now I’ve told you all that. Somehow I was afraid you’d despise me when you knew, but I don’t believe you will, dearest. There’s a lot in having fought and won, isn’t there, Meg? _ Why—my dearest!” Hot tears were raining down the girl’s cheeks. “There’s nothing for you to cry about, Meg. It’s—it’s all just life.”
“Oh Steven, thank God, thank God,” her eyes, wet and shining, were turned up to his. “Don’t you see? Can’t you guess? I thought it was me you were talking about all the time. But this makes everything possible. We’ve proved our right to finer things.”
“Meg!” Holding tightly, he looked down at her in dumb wonderment for a space. “You mean we’ve both come by the same dark road?”
“Yes, my sweet. A long, long dark road. But it was worth it. Say it was worth it, Steven, say it.”
“Why, Meg,” he said, drawing her closer, drawing her quivering lips near to his, “it was the only way—to this.’