CHAPTER I—THE GIRL IN THE PLAID COAT
PETER ERICSON MANN leaned back in his chair and let his hands fall listlessly from the typewriter to his lap.
He raised them again and laboriously pecked out a few words.
It was no use.
He got up, walked to one of the front windows of the dingy old studio and peered gloomily out at the bare trees and brown grass patches of Washington Square.
Peter was a playwright of three early (and partial) successes, and two more recent failures. He was thirty-three years old; and a typical New Yorker, born in Iowa, he dressed conspicuously, well, making it a principle when in funds to stock up against lean seasons to come. He worried a good deal and kept his savings of nearly six thousand dollars (to the existence of which sum he never by any chance alluded) in five different savings banks. He wore large horn-rimmed eyeglasses (not spectacles) with a heavy black ribbon attached, and took his Art almost as seriously as himself. You know him publicly as Eric Mann.
For six months Peter had been writing words where ideas were imperatively demanded. Lately he had torn up the last of these words. He had waited in vain for the divine uprush; there had come no tingle of delighted nerves, no humming vitality, no punch. And as for his big scene, in Act III, it was a morass of sodden, tangled, dramatic concepts.
His theme this year was the modern bachelor girl; but to save his life he couldn’t present her convincingly as a character in a play—perhaps because these advanced, outspoken young women irritated him too deeply to permit of close observation. Really, they frightened him. He believed in marriage, the old-fashioned woman, the home.
It had reached the point, a month back, where he could no longer even react to stimulants. He had revived an old affair with a pretty manicure girl without stirring so much as a flutter of excitement within himself. This was Maria Tonifetti, of the sanitary barber shop of Marius in the basement of the Parisian Restaurant. He had tried getting drunk; which made him ill and induced new depths of melancholy.
No one ever saw his name any more. No one, he felt certain, ever would see it. He could look back now on the few years of his success in a spirit of awful calm. He felt that he had had genius. But the genius had burned out. All that remained to him was to live for a year or two (or three) watching that total of nearly six thousand dollars shrink—-shrink—-and then the end of everything. Well, he would not be the first….
One faint faded joy had lately been left to Peter, one sorry reminder of the days when the magical words, the strangely hypnotic words, “Eric Mann,” had spoken, sung, shouted from half the bill-boards in town. Over beyond Sixth Avenue, hardly five minutes’ walk through the odd tangle of wandering streets, the tenements and ancient landmarks and subway excavations and little triangular breathing places that make up the Greenwich Village of to-day, there had lingered one faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster, advertising “The Buzzard, by Eric Mann.”
When he was bluest lately, Peter had occasionally walked over there and stood for a while gazing at this lingering vestige of his name.
He went over there now, in soft hat and light overcoat, and carrying his heavy cane—hurried over there, in fact—across the Square and on under the Sixth Avenue elevated into that quaint section of the great city which socialists, anarchists, feminists, Freudian psycho-analysts of self, magazine writers, Jewish intellectuals, sculptors and painters of all nationalities and grades, sex hygiene enthusiasts, theatrical press-agents and various sorts of youthful experimenters in living share with the merely poor.
He stopped at a familiar spot on the curb by a familiar battered lamp-post and peered across the street.
Then he started—and stared. Surprise ran into bewilderment, bewilderment into utter dejection.
The faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster had vanished.
A new brand of cut plug tobacco was advertised there now.
Ragged children of the merely poor, cluttering pavement and sidewalk, fell against him in their play. Irritably he brushed them aside.
It was indeed the end.
A young woman was crossing the street toward him, nimbly dodging behind a push cart and in front of a coal truck. Deep in self, he lowered his gaze and watched her. So intent was his stare that the girl stopped short, one foot on the curb, slowly lowered the apple she was eating, and looked straight at him.
She was shaped like a boy, he decided—good shoulders, no hips, fine hands (she wore no gloves, though the March air was crisp) and trim feet in small, fiat-heeled tan boots. Her hair, he thought, was cut short. He was not certain, for her “artistic” tarn o’shanter covered it and hung low on her neck behind. He moved a step to one side and looked more closely. Yes, it was short. Not docked, in the current fashion, but cut close to her head, like a boy’s.
She stepped up on the curb now and confronted him. He noted that her suit was of brown stuff, loosely and comfortably cut; and that the boyish outer coat, which she wore swinging open, was of a rough plaid. Then he became aware of her eyes. They were deep green and vivid. Her skin was a clear olive, prettily tinted by air and exercise… Peter suddenly knew that he was turning red.
She spoke first.
“Hadn’t we better say something?” was her remark. Then she took another bite of the apple, and munched it with honest relish.
“Very likely we would better,” he managed to reply—rather severely, for the “had better” phrase always annoyed him.
“It seems as if I must have met you somewhere,” he ventured next.
“No, we haven’t met.”
“My name is Mann.”
“Yes,” said she, “I know it.”
“Then suppose you tell me yours?”
Peter could not think of a reason why. Deeply as he was supposed to understand women, here was a new variety. She was inclined neither to flirt nor to run away.
“How is it that you know who I am?” he asked, sparring for time..
She gave a careless shrug. “Oh, most every one is known, here in the Village.”
Peter was always at his best when recognized as the Eric Mann. His spirits rose a bit.
“Might I suggest that we have a cup of tea somewhere?”
She knit her brows. “Yes,” she replied slowly, even doubtfully, “you might.”
“Of course, if you—”
“Jim’s isn’t far. Let’s go there.”
Jim’s was an oyster and chop emporium of ancient fame in the Village. They sat at a rear table. The place was empty save for an old waiter who shuffled through the sprinkling of sawdust on the floor, and a fat grandson of the original Jim who stood by the open grill that was set in the wall at the rear end of the oyster bar.
Over the tea Peter said, expanding now—“Perhaps this is reason enough for you to tell me who you are.”
“Perhaps what is?”
He smilingly passed the toast.
She took a slice, and considered it.
“You see,” he went on, “if I am not to know, how on earth am I to manage seeing you again?”
She slowly inclined her head. “That’s just it.”
It was Peter’s turn to knit his brow’s.
“How can I be sure that I want you to see me again?”
He waved an exasperated hand. “Then why are we here?”
“To find out.”
At least he could smoke. He opened his cigarette case. Then, though he never felt right about women smoking, he extended it toward her.
“Thanks,” said she, taking one and casually lighting it. Yes, she had fine hands. And he had noted when she took off her coat and reached up to hang it on the wall rack, her youth-like suppleness of body. A provocative person!
“I’ve seen some of your plays,” she observed, elbows on table, chin on hand, gazing at the smoke-wraiths of her cigarette. “Two or three. Odd Change and Anchored and—what was it called?”
“Yes, The Buzzard. They were dreadful.”
The color slowly left Peter’s face. The girl was speaking without the slightest self-consciousness or wish to offend. She meant it.
Peter managed to recover some part of his poise.
“Well!” he said. Then: “If they were all dreadful, why didn’t you stop after the first?”
“Oh.”—she waved her cigarette—“Odd Change came to town when I was in college, and—”
“So you’re a college girl?”
“Yes, and a crowd of us went. That one wasn’t so bad as the others. You know your tricks well enough—especially in comedy, carpentered comedy. Theatrically, I suppose you’re really pretty good or your things wouldn’t succeed. It is when you try to deal with life—and with women—that you’re….” Words failed her. She smoked in silence.
“I’m what?” he ventured. “The limit?”
“Yes,” she replied, very thoughtful. “Since you’ve said it.”
“All right,” he cried, aiming at a gay humor and missing heavily—“but now, having slapped me in the face and thrown me out in the snow, don’t you think that you’d better—” He hesitated, watching for a smile that failed to make its appearance. “That I’d better what?”
“Well—tell me a little more?”
“I was wondering if I could. The difficulty is, it’s the whole thing—your attitude toward life—the perfectly conventional, perfectly unimaginative home and mother stuff, your hopeless sentimentality about women, the slushy, horrible, immoral Broadway falseness that lies back of everything you do—the Broadway thing, always. Ever, in your comedy, good as that sometimes is. Your insight into life is just about that of a hardened director of one-reel films. What I’ve been wondering since we met this afternoon—you see, I didn’t know that we were going to meet in this way…
“… is whether it would be any use to try and help you. You have ability enough.”
“Thanks for that!”
“Don’t let’s trifle! You see, if it is any use at all to try to get a little—just a little—truth into the American theater, why, those of us that believe in truth owe it to our faith to get to work on the men that supply the plays.”
“Doubtless.” Peter’s mind was racing in a dozen directions at once. This extraordinary young person had hit close; that much he knew. He wondered rather helplessly whether the shattered and scattered remnants of his self-esteem could ever be put together again so the cracks wouldn’t show.
The confusing thing was that he couldn’t, at the moment, feel angry toward the girl; she was too odd and too pretty. Already he was conscious of a considerable emotional stir, caused by her mere presence there across the table. She reached out now for another cigarette.
“I think,” said he gloomily, “that you’d better tell me your name.”
She shook her head. “I’ll tell you how you can find me out.”
“You would have to take a little trouble.”
“Come to the Crossroads Theater to-night, in Tenth Street.”
“Oh—-that little place of Zanin’s.”
She nodded. “That little place of Zanin’s.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“I know you haven’t. None of the people that might be helped by it ever come. You see, we aren’t professional, artificialized actors. We are just trying to deal naturally with bits of real life—from the Russian, and things that are written here in the Village. Jacob Zanin is a big man—a fine natural man—with a touch of genius, I think.”
Peter was silent. He knew this brilliant, hulking Russian Jew, and disliked him: even feared him in a way, as he feared others of his race with what he felt to be their hard clear minds, their vehement idealism, their insistent pushing upward. The play that had triumphantly displaced his last failure at the Astoria Theater was written by a Russian Jew.
She added: “In some ways it is the only interesting theater in New York.”
“There is so much to see.”
“I know,” she sighed. “And we don’t play every night, of course. Only Friday and Saturday.”
He was regarding her now with kindling interest. “What do you do there?”
“Oh, nothing much. I’m playing a boy this month in Zanin’s one-act piece, Any Street. And sometimes I dance. I was on my way there when I met you—was due at three o’clock.”
“For a rehearsal, I suppose.”
“You won’t make it. It’s four-fifteen now.”
“I know it.”
“You’re playing a boy,” he mused. “I wonder if that is why you cut off your hair.” He felt brutally daring in saying this. He had never been direct with women or with direct women. But this girl created her own atmosphere which quite enveloped him.
“Yes,” said she simply, “I had to for the part.” Never would he have believed that the attractive woman lived who would do that!
Abruptly, as if acting on an impulse, she pushed back her chair. “I’m going,” she remarked; adding; “You’ll find you have friends who know me.”
She was getting into her coat now. He hurried awkwardly around the table, and helped her.
“Tell me,” said he, suddenly all questions, now that he was losing her—“You live here in the Village, I take it?”
She nearly smiled. “No, with another girl.”
“Do I know her?”
She pursed her lips. “I doubt it.” A moment more of hesitation, then: “Her name is Deane, Betty Deane.”
“I’ve heard that name. Yes, I’ve seen her—at the Black and White ball this winter! A blonde—pretty—went as a Picabia dancer.”
They were mounting the steps to the sidewalk (for Jim’s is a basement).
“Good-by,” said she. “Will you come—to-night or to-morrow?”
“Yes,” said he. “To-night.” And walked in a daze back to the rooms on Washington Square.
Categories: English Literature