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Title: The Third Act
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
Date first posted: Nov 2016
Date most recently updated: Dec 2016

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Third Act
Author: Fred M White


THE THIRD ACT


BY


FRED M. WHITE.


Published in the Week (Brisbane, Qld. : 1876 - 1934), Friday 6 December
1912.



The stage manager took the matter very seriously. He stood with his
back to the big wood fire in the holly-decorated hall and frowned
at the telegram in his hand. The man in the beehive chair smiled.
Nothing mattered to him so long as he had left London and Fleet
street--especially Fleet street--behind him. Carlton Dane was in
holiday mood. Just now, to the brilliant chief of the Comus, nothing
mattered. This combination of editor, journalist, and playwright had
escaped from the trammels of office for three weeks, and he was not
seriously disturbed to bear that Lottie Lane had sprained her ankle
practising loop threes at Prince's.

"What's the good of worrying about it, Daintry?" he asked.

"But, my dear chap, it's your play!" Daintry protested. "And look at
our reputation! The Marston House Christmas theatricals have become
almost classical. We are the first amateur combination in England. The
'Morning Post' never gives us less than a column. You know that we
treat ourselves awfully seriously. We shall have two hundred people
here on the night that your 'Fly in Amber' is produced. And everybody
knows that Willoughby Chesney is going to play the comedy at the
Atheneum in the spring."

"I did not sell it to him till after it was arranged that my comedy was
to be produced here, Daintry."

"My dear boy, what has that got to do with it? Chesney liked the play
so well that he made no objection to your comedy being produced as a
Marston House attraction before it saw the light on his own stage.
There is nobody who can take the part Lottie Lane was cast for--at
least, no amateur woman I can think of. And you sit there smoking your
cigarette as if it were a mere trifle."

"What are you going to do about it?" Dane asked.

"There is only one thing to do," Daintry said, sorrowfully. "We shall
have to give the part to a professional. There is no one here who could
play Hilda Lorrimer."

"Oh, yes, there is, my dear boy. I need hardly say that I mean Mrs.
Leatham."

"Hilda Leatham!" Daintry cried. "My dear fellow, my reason is
tottering. To think that I should have overlooked her! And she is in
the house all the time! If she will take the part, I shall regard
Lottie Lane's sprained ankle as a blessing in disguise. I'll go and
find her."

Hilda Leatham was curled up in a big armchair, in the library, gazing
thoughtfully into the heart of the red log fire. The book she had been
reading had fallen from her lap, and lay on the floor. It was a very
white, slightly weary, but beautiful face that looked up as Daintry
entered. The deep violet eyes were slumbrous now, but they suggested
passion and sorrow, contentment and amusement, all at once. She
stretched her long, lithe limbs, her present pose was easy and peaceful.

"What's the latest trouble?" she asked.

"Is my face so eloquent as that?" Daintry retorted. "Mrs. Leatham, I am
worried. The fair reputation of the Marston House Dramatic Society is
in danger. Lottie Lane has met with an accident, and cannot play Hilda
Lorrimer in Dane's comedy. There is no other amateur I know of who can
take the part. But that won't permit them all wanting it. And that is
why I kept the dire tragedy to myself, will you play it?"

A wave of colour swept over the beautiful, pallid face. Daintry could
see the eager trembling of the red lips, the flash in the velvet eyes.
A little sigh escaped Hilda Leatham.

"I'm afraid not," she said, with lingering reluctance. "You see, I
promised my husband."

Daintry looked away for a moment. It seemed a sufficiently feeble
excuse. If gossip were anything like true, Hilda Leatham had not seen
her husband for a year. They had been a devoted couple at first;
but latterly they had drifted pretty widely apart. Leatham was away
shooting, or fishing, or something of that kind; Norway, South Africa,
the Rockies had all been visited in turn. The house in town had been
let. Leatham and his wife travelled from one country house to another,
but they never stayed under the same roof. The excuse nettled Daintry.

"But these are private theatricals," he urged. "Who could object
to them? I am more anxious to make a success of the first venture,
especially as Chesney has paid us so tremendous a compliment. The play
will be a frost without you or Miss Lane. We have no woman who could
carry the part, Mrs. Leatham, I throw myself entirely on your mercy."

A thin smile flitted over Hilda Leatham's face. The temptation of
it stirred her pulses. She had been very fond of her profession--to
give it up had been a wrench. The artistic chord was touched; the old
ambition stirred in her breast. She had loyally kept her promise;
but then there was a vast difference between the amateur and the
professional stage. A rebellious red glowed in her cheeks. And the part
was certain to be a good one, or Annabel Henson, of the Atheneum, would
never have taken it. She stood up now, a tall, thin, graceful figure,
with the firelight glistening on her glorious hair. She held out her
hand to Daintry.

"Very well," she said. "I'm bored to death. I was never made for an
outdoor woman. Let me have the part after dinner, and I will play it. I
have given my word."

Daintry went off in a rapture of delight, "Prince's," after all, was
a blessed institution. The cloud of misfortune had lifted, and the
light of Marston House shone more brilliantly than ever. The success of
the new comedy was assured. Daintry made his big announcement during
dinner--a declaration welcomed with the most unbounded enthusiasm.
There was no sign of jealousy anywhere; indeed, the whole thing was
accepted as an intervention of a benign and farseeing Providence. Hilda
Leatham took her typed part presently and returned to the library. She
was not likely to be interrupted there; indeed, Daintry had issued
something like a proclamation to that effect.

The lights were dim and faded, and the red heart of the fire was warm
and grateful. From the dark brown walls the pictures of dead-and-gone
Daintrys looked down. Here was the fine fragrance of Russia leather
that seemed to go with well-appointed libraries. There was something in
the aspect of the room that appealed to Hilda Leatham. All the artistic
impulses, the glowing temperament, were aroused now as she looked at
the typed sheets in her hands. She was going to live again after the
hibernation of the last year or so. If Philip had only asked her a
question or two; if he had only given her a chance to explain. But he
took everything so seriously. She had not told the truth as to her
visit to Archie Mead's rooms; but then Phil would not have understood.
It was quite a harmless lie, after all. Archie had never cared for
anybody but----

But what was the use of dwelling on that? The whole thing was done
and ended, and she must make the most of what life held in store for
her. Still, she had given up everything for Phil. She honestly thought
that the sacrifice was all on one side. If Philip had only given her a
chance!

She turned resolutely to the typed slips in her hands and began to
read. Oh, it was a fine comedy enough. Chesney's judgment was rarely
at fault, and he had pronounced "A Fly in Amber" to be the daintiest
effort he had ever read. The tears and laughter were beautifully
balanced, comedy and pathos walked hand in hand. Even as a story the
play was worth reading.

But it was something more than a story. As Hilda read her interest
deepened. There was something oddly familiar about it, some suggestion
of a closer chapter from her own life. And yet nobody knew anything
about that, for she had not told a word of it to anybody. She was not
picking up the threads of her part now, she was reading a thrilling
drama. She came to the end of it presently, and the loose sheets
fluttered into her lap.

"The long arm of coincidence," she murmured. "But never was a
coincidence like this before. If Philip had only been a friend of
Dane's! But they have never met; he told me so to-night. And here is
the story of our own misunderstandings told in the play! And if Philip
had stood for his portrait he could not have been more faithfully
drawn than the hero of this comedy. Surely Carlton Dane would never
have invented this. Somebody must have told him the outlines of our--I
wonder if I dare ask him? Still, nobody but Philip and myself know and
we are too proud to tell a soul. It must be a coincidence. And I shall
play the part as I never played before because it's me. I shall be able
to confess everything to the audience, and they will cheer and applaud
and give me the whole of their sympathy, because they will feel for me
and think that I was right after all. They will love me all the more
for the humanity of my folly. And yet it hardly amounted to folly.
Indiscreet, perhaps, but then in Bohemia we have our own code. I am
sure it is a kind and Christian one. And if Phil were only here to see
for himself. Oh, what am I saying?"

She covered her burning face with her hands, and the tears trickled
through her fingers. Well, she would go on with it, she would get all
the sympathy she needed. And those people would applaud Hilda Lorrimer,
unconscious that they were taking the part of Hilda Leatham. She picked
up the sheets again. These were experiences of her own, little words
and manners she used daily. Really, she must ask Dane where he got it
all from. All a dream, perhaps.

"I'll get him to tell me in the morning," she said. "But how--how could
he know?"

What did he know? And where did his knowledge come from? Not from
Philip Leatham, at any rate. He was the last man in the world to tell a
soul of his troubles. And yet here was the story of the tragedy set out
so that all who ran might read. After all said and done, Hilda Leatham
had asked Dane nothing. She made up her mind to watch him at rehearsals
instead. It was not an easy matter, for she was an artist to her finger
tips, and she could do nothing but throw herself heart and soul into
her part. Still, there were chances.

The last dress rehearsal was a veritable triumph. Everybody seemed to
feel that a high note had been touched. The leading lady dropped into a
chair and regarded Hilda with a sort of quivering admiration.

"My dear, you are marvellous," she said. "To use the expressive
vulgarism, you are it. You are the wife who has allowed her feelings
to get the better of her. And anybody would think you were playing a
chapter from your own life. I felt as if I could strike you for not
telling your husband everything, especially as he had found you out.
And yet your pride has all my sympathy. Mr. Dane, the part will never
be played so well at the Atheneum."

"That I am certain of," Dane smiled. "Though I hope nobody will repeat
my opinion. Your husband did the stage a sorry service when he married
you, Mrs. Leatham."

Hilda listened to it all vaguely. She was waiting for her chance to
come. It came presently when light refreshments were served on the
stage. Dane came over and congratulated her.

"They expect an audience of over two hundred to-morrow night," he said.
"They little realise what a treat there is in store for them. If I had
written that part for you, I could have done no better."

Hilda Leatham turned her velvet eyes on her companion. "Are you quite
sure you didn't write it for me?" she asked.

"How--how could I?" Dane stammered. "It was only by the merest
accident--a most, fortunate and blessed accident, I admit, but----"

"I was speaking at random, Mr. Dane. I am interested in coincidences.
Now, do you know that you have stolen a story and founded your play on
it?"

"My dear lady, the story was given me. I was told that I could do what
I liked with it."

"You mean that my--but that is ridiculous. I am rather afraid that we
are at cross purposes, Mr. Dane. Let me put it another way. Is your
play founded on facts?"

"Upon my word I believe it is," said Dane, with the air of a man who
has made a discovery. "I didn't realise it until this moment. In a way,
the plot of 'A Fly in Amber' came to me from an outside source--in the
form of a short story."

"Oh, yes, I had forgotten you were the editor of the 'Comus.' Please
go on. A--a friend of mine had a precisely similar experience as that
which befell Hilda Lorrimer in the play. And it occurred to me that
perhaps in some way you had--you understand----"

"Been made a confidant of? Nothing of the sort, I assure you. The plot
came to me as a story--a short story submitted to me in the usual
way. The story was there, and the pathetic humour of it. A gem in the
rough--the very rough. I wrote and told the author so, and asked him
to come and see me. He declined, and gave me the plot to do as I liked
with."

"You mean that you never saw him? Haven't the slightest idea who he is?"

"Precisely. So far as I am concerned, the incident is at an end. How
the idea was used you have seen."

"You have made up your mind that the writer of the story was a man?"

"I am certain of it. The handwriting, the style, the final chapter,
everything points to that conclusion. And the story was written from
the man's point of view. The hero is a good bit of a Puritan, though
he married a wife who had been on the stage. He finds that his wife is
corresponding with an old actor admirer of hers, he knows that letters
are being smuggled and concealed. He has one in his hand. He follows
his wife and sees her in the arms of the actor admirer----"

"That he didn't!" Mrs. Leatham said, vehemently. "I--I beg your pardon.
Go on."

"Really, there is very little more to be told. The hero is a little
blind, a little self-sufficient. He makes no allowance for his wife's
artistic temperament. He magnifies a sentimental impulse into a guilty
secret. He gives the woman no chance to explain, and she is far too
proud to ask for one. That is practically all the story. But on the
stage it has to go further. I have to get sympathy for the woman and
show that she has really acted with a clean mind, and on a generous
impulse."

"You have done it magnificently, Mr. Dane. Please go on."

"Is there any need to tell any more? I think if the man who wrote the
story saw the play he would understand. I am taking it for granted that
the story is a human document--a page from the history of that man's
life. It must have been, because the story as a story was so crude and
badly constructed. That's why I had to elaborate it in my comedy. And I
want everybody to feel that the tragedy is behind it."

Hilda Leatham breathed a little more freely. "It is all exceedingly
interesting," she murmured. "Then all this is based on a chance short
story and elaborated out of your wonderful insight into human nature?
I began to think for the moment that you actually held the secret of
my--my friend's trouble."

"No. Authors are frequently accused of that sort of thing. They get
indignant letters from strangers. Sometimes the letters are pathetic,
and ask for advice. The writers assure us that we have exactly
portrayed their own lives and troubles. How could it be otherwise when
so many books are written? You can assure your friend that she is
perfectly safe, if her husband is that class of fool----"

"I am afraid that he is," Mrs. Leatham said, unsteadily. "If he were
here to see the justification----"

A whimsical smile crossed Dane's face. "Many thanks," he said. "You
have given me an idea for still another play. Why not try and get him
here? And get your friend as well. Once he has seen the last act of 'A
Fly in Amber,' and watched your marvellous vindication of the heroine,
he will abase himself before his injured wife. Now, if I could only
work that scene into a play----"

But Mrs. Leatham was no longer listening. There was a dim look in her
eyes as she moved away. She was a little dazed by the events of the
evening; just a little carried away by her personal triumph. It was
like one of the old first nights come back again. She had given up all
this for the sake of a husband who had never even tried to understand
her. Perhaps if he were present to-morrow night--but what was the
use of thinking of that? She had not the remotest idea where he was.
Slaughtering some inoffensive animal in some distant part of the world,
probably. What did it matter? What did anything matter now? She would
think of nothing but the triumph of the morrow. At any rate, she was
going to live for the next few hours.

After all, there was nothing like it. She had all the people there in
the hollow of her hand. The cream of the county was there--charmingly
dressed women, beautifully groomed men. For the best part of ten
minutes that glittering crowd had hardly breathed. Hilda played upon
them as if they had been a harp and hers the hand that swept the
strings. There would be an elaborate supper presently, but nobody was
thinking of that. They were all heart and soul with the beautiful
figure in the centre of the stage. Hilda paused just for a moment, and
for the first time her glance swept the audience. And there, in the
second row of the stalls, was the man she was mechanically playing to
all the time--her husband!

Her splendid training stood her in good stead now. Another glance, and
she understood. Philip was staying with his friends, the Heywoods.
Here they were in front with him. They had come from some forty miles
away; but that was nothing for the average motor-car. And Philip would
not know till he got there, seeing that Lottie Lane's name was on the
programme. He would never have expected----

The curtain came down at last amidst thunders of applause. The Marston
House company had surpassed themselves. There were tears in Mabel
Heywood's eyes as she turned to Leatham.

"I have never seen anything finer," she said. "And your wife was
splendid--splendid! Actually I didn't know that she was performing here
this evening."

"Neither did I," Leatham said. "Didn't somebody say that she was taking
Miss Lane's part at the last moment? I suppose I had better go and
congratulate her. It would look rather strange if I didn't add my leaf
to the rest of the laurel crown."

Leatham spoke with a lightness he was far from feeling. He was getting
over the dazed feeling, and he began to see the clear daylight at last.
It was some time before he found himself alone with Hilda. She looked
at him with a smile that sparkled, with eyes moist and unsteady.

"Have you learnt anything to-night?" she asked, mutinously.

"I have learnt a good deal during the past year," Leatham said. "Would
you mind walking with me as far as the little conservatory beyond the
library? There is nobody there; in fact, I looked to see. Hilda, it
seems to me that I have been incredibly foolish."

"When did you imagine that you could write a short story?" she asked.

"Oh, I understand. I've puzzled it all out. Dane based his play on
that miserable effort of mine. Making you the heroine and giving you a
chance to justify yourself was his idea, I suppose. But why, oh! why
didn't you tell me?"

"My dear Philip, you never gave me the chance. You jumped to the
conclusion that I was in love with Archie Mead. The poor boy did fancy
that he was in love with me at the time; but he really cared for Ada
Grace. It was her letter that I was sending on to him because her
people were dead against the match. And if I did kiss him, and you
saw it, why, it was only a kiss of congratulation. You never made the
slightest allowance for the artistic temperament, Phil, and if you had
not written that story and come here to-night we should have drifted
apart for all time. Oh! my dear boy, if I had not loved you as I did,
do you suppose that I should have given up the stage? Ah! you don't
know what the feeling is. Why, I convinced even you to-night; I could
see that by your face. And when you come to learn----"

"My dear Hilda, I have learnt many things the last year. I have learnt
that there are two sides to every question. I daresay all these people
know----"

"They know nothing. Dane may guess; but he is discreet and human. If
you still care for me----"

"My dearest," Leatham said, hoarsely, "I shall always care! I have been
the most miserable fool in the world. And I might have given you a
chance to--to----"

"Act," Hilda said, unsteadily. "But my pride was too deeply touched for
that. And, besides, I was not acting to-night. It was real, real, real!"

Her hands flitted out to him, and he caught her to his breast.

"Always act like that, darling," he whispered, as he kissed her. "Make
it real to me, remembering after that I am a poor, dull creature. And I
shall understand now. And--and, dearest, what a Christmas!"



THE END.


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