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Title: The Plagiarist
       REAL DRAMAS Part 4
      (Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent)
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200731h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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REAL DRAMAS

(Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent)

No. 4: The Plagiarist.

by

Fred M White


The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 21 August, 1909.


Willoughby Harcourt was holding forth in that silvery voice of his which had such a fascinating charm, especially where the women were concerned. His appearance was as picturesque as his career had been. Everybody who took the slightest interest in theatrical matters knew his story. His father had been an actor of repute in his day; he had been killed abroad in a duel arising out of a passionate love affair. His mother had been the beautiful, headstrong Lady Gertrude Maltravers, who had married Harcourt in the teeth of the most bitter opposition on the part of her family—only to find herself a widow two years later. At fifteen, Willoughby Harcourt had been left quite alone in the world to make his own way. He had graduated through a strolling theatrical company to a position as the finest romantic actor of his day. To all outward seeming he was prosperous enough; he had his own theatre, and more or less a hand in his own plays. There were certain people in the inner circle who said that Harcourt was no more than the paid servant of a syndicate, drawing a salary and percentage on the takings. And according to these quidnuncs there had been very little profit lately. There were others still less charitable who declared that Harcourt was a good bit of a scamp.

Despite all this, he was a popular figure everywhere. His keen, handsome, boyish face and white hair carried him swimmingly. To get his acceptance to a dinner invitation was regarded as a high compliment, and Lady Mannington seemed to appreciate the fact.

It was Sunday night and there were only half-a-dozen round the table, all told. The oval table was one mass of pink orchids and pink-shaded lights. The dinner proceeded with that smooth elegance on which Lady Mannington prided herself. The coffee and cigarette stage had arrived. The hostess preferred to take this interval at the table, so incidentally did Willoughby Harcourt. He liked to lounge there and talk, he liked the artistic confusion of silver and red wine and the litter of fruit before him. It was the hour when he talked best.

He had the conversation pretty well to himself, as usual. He was more than usually interesting too, for he was talking of a new play produced for the first time the night before in Manchester. As this was Sunday, only the barest details had appeared in the Sunday paper. The listeners were following every detail eagerly, none more eagerly than Dorothy Nation.

As a matter of fact, she had no right there at all. She was by way of being Lady Mannington's secretary: she wrote her ladyship's letters and invitations, she played her accompaniments—for Lady Mannington was really musical and a composer of more than average merit. Somebody had fallen out at the very last minute, and Lady Mannington hated a blank at the dinner table. Half good-naturedly, half-imperiously, she had commanded her companion's attendance.

"Really a fine play, though perhaps I ought not to say it," Harcourt murmured. "Still, that was the opinion of Manchester last night."

"Who is the author?" somebody asked. "Is Eugene Malet an assumed name?"

"Or is it spell Willoughby Harcourt?" somebody else suggested.

Harcourt smiled in a distinctly non-committal manner. He made no denial.

"I should prefer not to answer that question," he said. "For some occult reason, the British public looks with a cold eye upon actor-managers who write plays. It is their firm belief that somebody else does the work. I am not saying that there is no foundation for this. No doubt, Mr. Eugene Malet will disclose himself at the proper time."

The diners glanced at one another significantly. No doubt existed in the mind of one of them. Willoughby Harcourt had added another laurel to his crown. It was very modest of him to speak like this. He went on now to discuss the plot of the play.

"I flatter myself that the theme is extremely original," he said. "It's no novelty to have two men in love with the same woman, but in this case the men are father and son. The father has all the money, of course. He is under fifty, and a lover that any girl might be proud of. His son is twenty-six, and he is equally well endowed by Nature. He takes his father into his confidence, never dreaming for a moment what the latter's feelings are. Like most sons, he looks upon his father as a bit of a fogey. The father makes no kind of a struggle to control his feelings, and he deliberately sets out to conspire against the young man's happiness. Unless he does that he knows that he has no chance. He gets the girl's father in his power, and sends him, a fugitive from justice, to Australia. The girl's parent thinks that there is a warrant out for his apprehension, and so does the girl. The time comes when she can save her father, and give him back the good name (which, as a matter of fact, he has not lost), by going out to Australia. It is a case of 'twixt love and duty.' Finally, duty conquers, as the father of the hero means that it should. The girl's father has gone away in an assumed name, and letters from him fall into the hands of the hero that makes it seem as if the heroine has fled to join an earlier lover. Then the action of the play is removed to Australia—to Melbourne. There is a painful scene in which the heroine (who has learnt many things) sees her lover through an open window talking to a girl——"

"The girl his a necklace in her hand," Dorothy Nation interrupted eagerly. "It is a necklace which at one time the hero had offered to—I beg your pardon."

The girl blushed deeply. Lady Mannington was regarding her with cold displeasure.

"Really, I am very sorry," she said contritely. "I—I was carried away by the story. I must have read this much in one of the Sunday papers."

"Did you?" Harcourt asked with his most fascinating smile. "I did not think that they had been quite so enterprising. I thought I had seen them all, too. It is very good of you to follow my little story so closely. What was I saving? Oh, the incident of the necklace...... When the hero's father dies, as he does after a brief but painful illness, the story of his perfidy come out. It is at this point that the real dramatic grip of the story begins from......"

But Dorothy Nation was no longer listening. Her thoughts were far enough away at that moment. There was another story being played here under the eyes of the actor-manager, and he was taking a part in it, had he only known it. And the story was far more intensely human, had he but understood. Dorothy came to herself with a start; the outline of the play was finished; Lady Mannington and her guests were going further on. A quarter of an hour later and Dorothy had the house in Stratton Street practically to herself. There was small chance of Lady Mannington returning for the next hour or two. The girl moved impulsively towards the door.

"I'll do it," she exclaimed. "I'll go as far as the Barbarian Club and see Mark German—he is always there on Sunday nights. I'll get him to help me to find 'Eugene Malet.' There is just a chance that I may find my happiness yet. And to think that that man could be such a mean thief! With his reputation, too! Well, we shall see."

It was not so very late yet, so that Dorothy decided to walk as far as the Barbarian. She was fortunate enough to find the popular theatrical agent on the premises. He came to her at once. He was a pleasant-looking man with a clear eye and a firm square jaw.

"Dorothy Nation!" he exclaimed. "What do you want at this time of night?"

"I came to ask you a great favour," the girl said. "I want you to help me for the sake of the old time when you and my father were friends. You always said you would. You are the one man in England who knows most of my story; I owe my present situation to you. You helped me when I came back to England from Australia broken-hearted and penniless. You never told anybody else?"

"My dear child, what a question! As if I should betray your confidence in that way!"

"I know, I know. Pray forgive me. Do you know, I heard my story repeated almost word for word in Stratton Street to-night. It came from the lips of Willoughby Harcourt. I was so startled and alarmed that I nearly betrayed myself. Fancy my having to sit there at dinner whilst Harcourt related the tale of Herbert Stirling and his father!"

"Do you mean to say that the man was talking at you?"

"Oh, no. He was repeating the plot of his play produced in Manchester last night. As you know, it is a new play written by a man who appears on the programme as Eugene Malet."

"Practically the same thing as if it were Harcourt's name. Go on."

"Mr. German, Willoughby Harcourt never wrote that play. He insinuated to-night that he was the author of it, but he lied. The play is based entirely upon the vile conspiracy by which Herbert Stirling's father came between his son and myself, it is woven into the play—it is the play itself. And the only two living people who know that story to-day are Herbert Stirling and myself. That Herbert would divulge the details to anybody else I decline to believe. At the present moment he is somewhere in the world looking for me; I should look for him, only I am a poor girl, and I have my living to get. I began to fear that Herbert was dead; but I know better now. He is not dead, because he is the man who wrote the play now being rehearsed at the Apollo, under the name of Eugene Malet. He always had an ambition that way, probably he has gone abroad again, having expressed his determination never to return to England. He sent the play to Willoughby Harcourt, and he liked it. He is going to tacitly accept the suggestion that he wrote it. With his reputation——"

"Yes, I know what you are going to say," German observed thoughtfully. "Harcourt's reputation is none too good amongst those of us who are behind the scenes. More than once he has had a play written to order that contained ideas from dramas forwarded to him by aspirants. I'll go and see him if you like, and try and get a general admission out of him. But I'm afraid that is not much use unless I have some facts to go upon. Something startling, I mean."

"Then I'll give them to you," Dorothy whispered. "I am positive that the end of the play has been altered so as to make a happy curtain. Go and see Mr. Harcourt, and ask him why he left out the scene that followed after the heroine sees the other girl with the necklace in her hand. Herbert Stirling may not have used that incident, but I feel absolutely sure that he did. It was too dramatic to be overlooked. It is a game of bluff you have to play."

German looked at his watch. Apparently he had come to a decision.

"I'll do it to-night," he said. "Harcourt always spends half-an-hour at the Colly Cibber Club before he turns in. I'll go and catch him in the smoking-room. It is just possible that our fascinating friend will fall into the trap. You go back home, my dear, and I'll let you know the result of the interview as soon as possible."

An hour or so later German strolled into the smoking-room of the Cibber. The place was deserted save for Willoughby Harcourt and one other member. A little time afterwards the actor-manager and the prominent theatrical agent were alone together.

"By the way," German said breezily, "I've got to congratulate you on another brilliant success. I've just seen Tuson, who ran up to Manchester to do the show for his paper. He gave me quite a vivid account of the story. Founded on fact, I am given to understand. But I fancy you made a mistake in cutting out the scene after the heroine sees the girl with the necklace in her hand."

Harcourt stood smilingly there; his vanity was soothed. His mind was full of his play; he could see nothing of the artfulness of the suggestion. He walked blindly into the trap.

"I had to cut it out," he said. "You see, it would have utterly spoilt my ending. If I had allowed it to stand, we must have finished on the tragic note. But what do you know about it?"

"Oh, we dramatic agents learn a few things," German said. "Don't forget that a good many plays come our way. Who is Eugene Malet? An assumed name, of course. A good many fools are going about saying that you wrote it. We know better than that—in fact, I know all about it. I came here to-night to get Malet's address from you."

After all, the thing had been quite easy. And there was no drawing back for Willoughby Harcourt now. He looked just a little queer and white for the moment. He began to congratulate himself on the fact that he had not really claimed the authorship of the play. One glance at German's square jaw decided him. It would be better to speak out honestly.

"To tell you the truth," he said engagingly. "I am quite in the dark. The man came to me and asked me to read his play—he wrote me that he was tired of his life, that his story was there, and that he was going to put an end to it all. A paragraph I read in the paper a few days afterwards decided me that he had put an end of it. To make a long story short, I looked at the play and I liked it. The man was dead and buried, there was nothing to be gained by telling the story. Of course, I have laid no claim to be the author of the play, and if fools like to say so that is no business of mine. I'll send you Eugene Malet's letter if you like."

Mark German was quite content to let it go at that. A week later the popular society weekly called O.I.C. came out with the following paragraph:—

"Quite a romance (writes our esteemed correspondent, Mr. Mark German) attached to Willoughby Harcourt's latest and greatest success 'The Last Word.' The play is really the work of Mr. Herbert Stirling, at one time a promising writer of short stories. The heroine is inspired by a certain young lady to whom Mr. Stirling was at one time engaged, and from whom he was parted by a singular chain of most unfortunate circumstances. Mr. Stirling is somewhere abroad just at present, but if these lines should catch his eye he is asked to communicate with the above at 445, Craven Street, where letters are awaiting him."

"Miss Dorothy Nation, who is acting as secretary to Lady Mannington, tells me that the new song by that gifted composer is dedicated by permission to H.S.H. Princess Von der Zeidler. Lady Mannington intends to remain in Stratton Street till the end of the month."

"If he is alive that will fetch him," German chuckled as he read the two paragraphs which were artfully set side by side. "A man who can write a play like that doesn't commit suicide."

A week later, a visitor called at Stratton Street to see Miss Nation. She was quite alone in the drawing-room as he came up. He did not say much; she said nothing at all. It was a very long time before either of them spoke. They had other things to occupy their attention.

"And now, my darling,"—Stirling broke the silence at length—"please tell me all about it. It reads like some wonderfully realistic stage-play."

"It is a play," Dorothy laughed happily. "We'll write it together, if you like, dear, and we will get our friend Willoughby Harcourt to produce it."


THE END

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