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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Cinema Murder By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 17551

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was not until they were crossing Brooklyn Bridge, on their way into the city, that she asked him that question. They crawled along, one of an interminable, tangled line of vehicles of all sorts and conditions, the trains rattling overhead, and endless streams of earnest people passing along the footway. Below them, the evening sunlight flashed upon the murky waters, glittered from the windows of the tall buildings, and shone a little mercilessly upon the unlovely purlieus of the great human hive. The wind had turned cool, and Elizabeth, with a little shiver, had drawn her furs around her neck. All through the day, during the luncheon in an unpretentious little inn, and the leisurely homeward drive, she had been once more entirely herself, pleasant and sympathetic, ignoring absolutely the intangible barrier which had grown up between them, soon to be thrown down for ever or to remain for all time.

"We left our heroine," she said, "at an interesting crisis in her career.

I am waiting to hear from you-what would you have done in her place?"

He answered her at once, and he spoke from the lesser heights. He was fiercely jealous.

"It is not a reasonable question," he declared. "I am not a woman. I am just a man who has led an unusually narrow and cramped life until these last few months."

"That is scarcely fair," she objected. "You profess to have loved-to love still, I hope. That in itself makes a man of any one. Then you, too, have sinned. You, too, are one of those who have yielded to passion of a sort. Therefore, your judgment ought to be the better worth having."

He winced as though he had been struck, and looked at her with eyes momentarily wild. He felt that the deliberate cruelty of her words was of intent, an instinct of her brain, defying for the moment her heart.

"I don't know," he faltered. "I won't answer your question. I can't. You see, the love you speak of is my love for you. You ask me to ignore that-I, who am clinging on to life by one rope."

"You are like all men," she sighed. "We do not blame you for it-perhaps we love you the more-but when a great crisis comes you think only of yourselves. You disappoint me a little, Philip. I fancied that you might have thought a little of me, something of Sylvanus Power."

"I haven't your sympathy for other people," he declared hoarsely.

"No," she assented, "sympathy is the one thing a man lacks. It isn't your fault, Philip. You are to be pitied for it. And, after all, it is a woman's gift, isn't it?"

There followed then a silence which seemed interminable. It was not until they were nearing the theatre that he suddenly spoke with a passion which startled her.

"Tell me," he insisted, "last night? I can't help asking. I was in hell!"

He told himself afterwards that there couldn't be any possible way of reconciling cruelty so cold-blooded with all that he knew of Elizabeth. She behaved as though his question had fallen upon deaf ears. The car had stopped before the entrance to the theatre. She stepped out even before he could assist her, hurried across the pavement and looked back at him for one moment only before she plunged into the dark passage. She nodded, and there was an utterly meaningless smile upon her lips.

"Good-by!" she said. "Do you mind telling John he needn't wait for me?"

Then she disappeared. He stood motionless upon the pavement, a little dazed. Two or three people jostled against him. A policeman glanced at him curiously. A lady with very yellow hair winked in his face. Philip pulled himself together and simultaneously felt a touch upon his elbow. He glanced into the face of the girl who had accosted him, and for a moment he scarcely recognised her.

"Wish you'd remember you're in New York and not one of your own sleepy old towns," Miss Grimes remarked brusquely. "You'll have a policeman say you're drunk, in a minute, if you stand there letting people shove you around."

He fell into step by her side, and they walked slowly along. Martha was plainly dressed, but she was wearing new clothes, new shoes, and a new hat.

"Don't stare at me as though you never saw me out of a garret before," she went on, a little sharply. "Your friend Miss Dalstan is a lady who understands things. When I arrived at the theatre this morning I found that it was to be a permanent job all right, and there was a little advance for me waiting in an envelope. That fat old Mr. Fink began to cough and look at my clothes, so I got one in first. 'This is for me to make myself look smart enough for your theatre, I suppose?' I said. 'Give me an hour off, and I'll do it.' So he grinned, and here I am. Done a good day's work, too, copying the parts of your play for a road company, and answering letters. What's wrong with you?"

The very sound of her voice was a tonic. He almost smiled as he answered her.

"Just a sort of hankering for the moon and a sudden fear lest I mightn't get it."

"You're spoilt, that's what's the matter with you," she declared brusquely.

"It never occurred to me," he said gloomily, "that life had been over-kind."

"Oh, cut it out!" she answered. "Here you are not only set on your feet but absolutely held up there; all the papers full of Merton Ware's brilliant play, and Merton Ware, the new dramatist, with his social gifts-such an acquisition to New York Society! Why, it isn't so very long ago, after all, that you hadn't a soul in New York to speak to. I saw something in your face that night. I thought you were hungry. So you were, only it wasn't for food. It cheered you up even to talk with me. And look at you to-day! Clubs and parties and fine friends, and there you were, half dazed in Broadway! Be careful, man. You don't know what it is to be down and out. You haven't been as near it as I have, anyway, or you'd lift your head up and be thankful."

"Martha," he began earnestly-

"Miss Grimes!" she interrupted firmly. "Don't let there be any mistake about that. I hate familiarity."

"Miss Grimes, then," he went on. "You talk about my friends. Quite right. I should think I have been introduced to nearly a thousand people since the night my play was produced. I have dined at a score of houses and many scores of restaurants. The people are pleasant enough, too, but all the time it's Merton Ware the dramatist they are patting on the back. They don't know anything about Merton Ware the man. Perhaps there are some of them would be glad to, but you see it's too soon, and they seem to live too quickly here to make friends. I am almost as lonely as I was, so far as regards ordinary companionship. Last night I felt the first little glow of real friendliness-just the men down at the club."

"You've put all your eggs into one basket, that's what you've done," she declared.

"That's true enough," he groaned.

"And like all men-selfish brutes!" she proceeded deliberately-"you expect everything. Fancy expecting everything from a woman like Miss Dalstan! Why, you aren't worthy of it, you know."

"Perhaps not," he admitted, "but you see, Miss Grimes, there is something in life which seems to have passed you by up till now."

"Has it indeed!" she objected. "You think I've never had a young man, eh?

Perhaps you're right. Haven't found much time for that sort of rubbish.

Anyway, this is where I hop on a trolley car."

"Wait a moment," he begged. "Don't leave me yet. You've nothing to do, have you?"

"Nothing particular," she confessed, "except go home and cook my dinner."

"Look here," he went on eagerly, "I feel like work. I've got the second act of my new play in my mind. Come round with me and let me try dictating it. I'll give you something to eat in my rooms. It's for the theatre, mind. I never tried dictating. I believe I could do it to you."

"In your rooms," she repeated, a little doubtfully.

"They won't talk scandal about us, Miss Grimes," he assured her. "To tell you the truth, I want to be near the telephone."

"In case she rings you up, eh?"

"That's so. I said something I ought not to have done. I ought to have waited for her, but it was something that had been tearing at me ever since last night, and I couldn't bear it."

"Some blunderers, you men," Miss Grimes sighed. "Well, I'm with you."

He led her almost apologetically to the lift of the handsome building in which his new rooms were situated. They were very pleasant bachelor rooms, with black oak walls and green hangings, prints upon the wall, a serviceable writing-table, and a deep green carpet. She looked around her and at the servant who had come forward at their entrance, with a little sniff.

"Shall you be changing to-night, sir?" he asked.

"Not to-night," Philip answered quickly. "Tell the w

aiter to send up a simple dinner for two-I can't bother to order. And two cocktails," he added, as an afterthought.

Martha stared after the disappearing manservant disparagingly.

"Some style," she muttered. "A manservant, eh? Don't know as I ever saw one before off the stage."

"Don't be silly," he remonstrated. "He has four other flats to look after besides mine. It's the way one lives, nowadays, cheaper than ordinary hotels or rooms. Take off your coat."

She obeyed him, depositing it carefully in a safe place. Then she strolled around the room, finding pictures little to her taste, and finally threw herself into an easy-chair.

"Are we going to work before we eat?" she asked.

"No, afterwards," he told her. "Have a cigarette?"

She held it between her fingers but declined a match.

"I'll wait for the cocktails," she decided. "Now listen here, Mr. Ware, there's a word or two I'd like to say to you."

"Go ahead," he invited listlessly.

"You men," she continued, looking him squarely in the face, "think a lot too much of yourselves. You think so much of yourselves that as often as not you've no time to think of other folk. A month or so ago who were you? You were hiding in a cheap tenement house, scared out of your wits, dressed pretty near as shabbily as I was, with a detective on your track, and with no idea of what you were going to do for a living. And now look at you. Who's done it all?"

"Of course, my play being successful," he began-

She broke in at once.

"You and your play! Who took your play? Who produced it at the New York Theatre and acted in it so that people couldn't listen without a sob in their throats and a tingling all over? Yours isn't the only play in the world! I bet Miss Dalstan has a box full of them. She probably chose yours because she knew that you were feeling pretty miserable, because she'd got sorry for you coming over on the steamer, because she has a great big heart, and is always trying to do something for others. She's made a man of you. Oh! I know a bit about plays. I know that with the royalties you're drawing you can well afford rooms like these and anything else you want. But that isn't all she's done. She's introduced you to her friends, she's taken more notice of you than any man around. She takes you out automobile driving, she lets you spend all your spare time in her rooms. She don't mind what people say. You dine with her and take her home after the play. You have more of her than any other person alive. Say, what I want to ask is-do you think you're properly grateful?"

"I couldn't ever repay Miss Dalstan," he acknowledged, a little sadly, "but-"

"Look here, no 'buts'!" she interrupted. "You think I don't know anything. Perhaps I don't, and perhaps I do. I was standing in the door of the office when you two came in from your automobile drive this afternoon. I saw her come away without wishing you good-by, then I saw her turn and nod, looking just as usual, and I saw her face afterwards. If I had had you, my man, as close to me then as you are now, I'd have boxed your ears."

He moved uneasily in his chair. There was no doubt about the girl's earnestness. She was leaning a little forward, and her brown eyes were filled with a hard, accusing light. There was a little spot of colour, even, in her sallow cheeks. She was unmistakably angry.

"I'd like to know who you are and what you think yourself to make a woman look like that?" she wound up.

The waiter entered with the cocktails and began to lay the cloth for dinner. Philip paced the room uneasily until he had gone.

"Look here, my little friend," he said, when at last the door was closed, "there's a great deal of sound common sense in what you say. I may be an egoist-I dare say I am. I've been through the proper training for it, and I've started life again on a pretty one-sided basis, perhaps. But-have you ever been jealous?"

"Me jealous!" she repeated scornfully. "What of, I wonder?"

There was a suspicious glitter in her eyes, a queer little tremble in her tone. His question, however, was merely perfunctory. She represented little more to him, at that moment, than the incarnation of his own conscience.

"Very likely you haven't," he went on. "You are too independent ever to care much for any one. Well, I've been half mad with jealousy since last night. That is the truth of it. There's another man wants her, the man who built the theatre for her. She told me about him yesterday while we were out together."

"Don't you want her to be happy?" the girl asked bluntly.

"Of course I do."

"Then leave her alone to choose. Don't go about looking as though you had a knife in your heart, if you find her turn for a moment to some one else. You don't want her to choose you, do you, just because you are a weakling, because her great kind heart can't bear the thought of making you miserable? Stand on your feet like a man and take your luck…. Can I take off my hat? I can't eat in this."

The waiter had entered with the dinner. Merton opened the door of his room and paced up and down, for a few moments, thoughtfully. When she reappeared she took the seat opposite Philip and suddenly smiled at him, an exceedingly rare but most becoming performance. Her mouth seemed at once to soften, and even her eyes laughed at him.

"Here you ask me to dine," she said, "because you are lonely, and I do nothing but scold you! Never mind. I was typewriting something of yours this morning-I've forgotten the words, but it was something about the discipline of affection. You can take my scolding that way. If I didn't adore Miss Dalstan, and if you hadn't been kind to me, I should never take the trouble to make myself disagreeable."

He smiled back at her, readily falling in with her altered mood. She seemed to have talked the ill-humour out of her blood, and during the service of the meal she told him of the comfort of her work, the charm of the other girl in the room, with whom she was already discussing a plan to share an apartment. When she came to speak, however remotely, of Miss Dalstan, her voice seemed instinctively to soften. Philip found himself wondering what had passed between the two women in those few moments when Elizabeth had left him and gone back to Martha's room. By some strange miracle, the strong, sweet, understanding woman had simply taken possession of the friendless child. The thought of her sat now in Martha's heart, an obsession, almost a worship. Perhaps that was why the sense of companionship between the two, notwithstanding certain obvious disparities, seemed to grow stronger every moment.

They drank their coffee and smoked cigarettes afterwards in lazy fashion.

Suddenly Martha sprang up.

"Say, I came here to work!" she exclaimed.

"And I brought you under false pretences," he confessed. "My brain's not working. I can't dictate. We'll try another evening. You don't mind?"

"Of course not," she answered, glancing at the clock. "I'll be going."

"Wait a little time longer," he begged.

She resumed her seat. There was only one heavily shaded lamp burning on the table, and through the little cloud of tobacco smoke she watched him. His eyes were sometimes upon the timepiece, sometimes on the telephone. He seemed always, although his attitude was one of repose, to be listening, waiting. It was half-past nine-the middle of the second act. They knew quite well that for a quarter of an hour Elizabeth would be in her dressing room. She could ring up if she wished. The seconds ticked monotonously away. Martha found herself, too, sharing that curiously intense desire to hear the ring of the telephone. Nothing happened. A quarter to ten came and passed. She rose to her feet.

"I am going home right now," she announced.

He reached for his hat.

"I'll come with you," he suggested, a little halfheartedly.

"You'll do nothing of the sort," she objected, "or if you do, I'll never come inside your rooms again. Understand that. I don't want any of these Society tricks. See me home, indeed! I'd have you know that I'm better able to take care of myself in the streets of New York than you are. So thank you for your dinner, and just you sit down and listen for that telephone. It will ring right presently, and if it doesn't, go to bed and say to yourself that whatever she decides is best. She knows which way her happiness lies. You don't. And it's she who counts much more than you. Leave off thinking of yourself quite so much and shake hands with me, please, Mr. Ware."

He gripped her hand, opened the door, and watched her sail down towards the lift, whistling to herself, her hands in her coat pockets. Then he turned back into the room and locked himself in.

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