Read Backstage Nurse Online

Authors: Jane Rossiter

Tags: #romance, #nurse, #medical

Backstage Nurse (13 page)

BOOK: Backstage Nurse
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She smiled. "For a minute in that room, you talked and acted like a doctor."

"Don't remind me. It was force of habit."

"I'd say it was the real you breaking through, in spite of the barriers you've set up. I'm glad it happened."

"And I'm not." He changed the subject. "What about you and Roger?"

She shrugged. "We're good friends."

"Sounds too platonic."

"It is."

"You're making a mistake." He looked at her with serious eyes. "I really mean that. Fellows like Roger don't come along too often."

"Let me worry about that later, on my own time," she told him lightly. "Just now, I'm worried about getting a good night's sleep so I'll be ready for whatever happens at the hospital tomorrow."

The next morning was a tense one for everyone in the company. Lyon Phillips was the only member of the cast without a minute to stand by and worry. He had a set problem that snarled up all the carefully planned schedule by which he worked. Hugh Deering and the rest of the players stayed close to the hotel in the early morning, and at noon, Hugh took a taxi to the hospital.

As he got off the elevator on the seventh floor, Shirley and Dr. Trask were standing talking to the floor head nurse. Seeing him, Shirley came up to him.

"It's all over," she said. "The Chief came through it very well, and he doesn't seem to have as much pain."

"What did the X rays show?" Hugh asked.

"There has been some growth progression, but with luck, X-ray therapy may keep it under control for a time, anyway."

Dr. Trask joined them. "The news isn't as bad as it could be, Deering. I mean, when we accept the fact that Oliver is doomed. What we're fighting for now is time. Just a little of it. And that much we have a chance to get."

"Will he be able to play tonight?" Hugh asked the question that everyone would want answered.

Trask raised his hands. "Ordinarily, I'd say no. But with Oliver—"

"When we left his room just now," Shirley picked up the story, "he was planning to go directly to the theater from the hospital. He asked me to bring his things here from the hotel."

"Then there is a chance," Hugh said.

"There is." Trask spoke again. "But whatever happens, he must stay in the hospital for treatments and observation."

The morning papers had carried a story that Oliver Craft was ill with a minor gastric disturbance. The phone at the theater box office began ringing almost immediately with queries as to whether the star would play the evening performance. Lyon Phillips gave out a bulletin that the show would definitely go on, even before he received Shirley's favorable report from the hospital.

Excitement within the company was almost as great about Jeffrey Sayre's sudden departure for Hollywood as it was about the star's illness. Lyon Phillips had not told Joy Milland or the other minor players in the company the details on Oliver Craft. So they concentrated their speculations on what had happened with Jeffrey Sayre and who would take his place.

Shirley went down to the theater in the afternoon to get the star's dressing room ready in case he should be able to play. When she went onstage, she found Joy Milland talking to the stage manager.

"Well, darling!" Joy shrilled on seeing her. "You have had a busy twenty-four hours. How is dear old Oliver?"

"Much better, thanks," Shirley told her shortly.

"Aren't you thrilled that Hugh will be playing the biggest part of his stage career tonight?" Joy bubbled on. "I'll bet he'll be every bit as good in it as Jeffrey was."

Lyon frowned. "He's back at the hotel brushing up on his lines now. That's a heavy part. And with Oliver not well—"

"It will be all right," Joy said. "It just has to. The radio has been blasting with announcements about Oliver being ill all day. Everyone seems excited."

"Yes, don't they?" Lyon said dryly, and went back to directing his stagehands.

Not wanting to be alone with Joy, Shirley turned to go back to the dressing rooms. "I haven't much time to get things straightened out," she explained.

But Joy apparently had no intention of losing her company. She walked along with her to Oliver Craft's dressing room and seated herself in one of the chairs. Crossing her legs in the too-short blue suit she was wearing, she made a vulgar display as she lifted a cigarette and took a deep puff. Then she said, "You've seen quite a lot of Hugh since you came with us."

Shirley, who had been unpacking a bag of make-up, glanced at the girl. "I've seen a lot of everyone."

"You know what I mean."

Shirley stared at her. "I'm afraid I don't."

The girl took another deliberate puff on the cigarette. "Before you came along, Hugh was considered by the company to be mine."

"That's very interesting." Shirley felt her cheeks crimson with anger.

"He's not your type, dear. Even if he was a doctor once. That's all past."

"Frankly," Shirley said, turning to her, "I don't think any of this is your business."

"I think it is," Joy snapped, uncrossing her legs and standing up. "If I were in your place, I'd have enough pride not to run after a man."

"You'd better leave," Shirley said grimly. "With things as they are, I don't want to cause any more trouble in the company. But I won't take much more."

Joy strolled to the door, her coarse, pretty face disdainful. "Well, you know, dear. I thought a word to the wise." The actress gave a mocking smile and vanished.

At seven-thirty that evening, the shrill siren of the ambulance carrying Oliver Craft to the Hanna Theater cut its way through the busy traffic. Shirley and Dr. Trask made the trip with the star. Tension was at its highest backstage when they entered with the old man.

Oliver smiled and nodded to the doorman and went on toward his dressing room, on the same level as the stage. Shirley was at one side and Dr. Trask the other, but the star walked without their support as he made his way past the curious stagehands and the members of his own company.

Before leaving the hospital, Dr. Trask had given him a special injection that would stimulate his lagging strength for a few hours. The X-ray treatment had diminished the pain so that only a mild sedative had been required. As Oliver Craft began to make himself up, Shirley saw that his hands trembled slightly.

From behind him, Dr. Trask lectured: "Oliver, I wouldn't allow anyone else to abuse themselves as you're doing tonight. I warn you that tranquillizer injection will leave you exhausted when it wears off. Do you realize what you're taking out of yourself in giving this show?"

The old man smiled at his wan reflection in the mirror. "Then all I shall have to do is rest at the hospital tomorrow and let you get me in shape for tomorrow night's performance."

"What can I say?" Dr. Trask asked Shirley in despair.

There was a knock at the dressing-room door and Shirley let Lyon Phillips in. He came forward quietly to the star. "Curtain is due in ten minutes. Do you want me to hold it another five, sir?"

Oliver Craft turned to him. "No, thank you, Lyon. I shall be ready in plenty of time. Ring up as usual."

Even from the dressing room, they could hear the applause of the audience as the curtain rose. Lyon Phillips had been right in predicting that Cleveland would take them to its heart. Oliver Craft waited much longer than usual before going onstage and Shirley therefore missed Hugh's first scenes in the role of the Communist chief.

Finally, the star raised his eyes to her. "Time to go now, my dear," he said, and slowly got up. Dr. Trask had already gone out to the wings.

The latest attack in his illness showed in the deep lines of the star's ascetic face. But glancing at him as she walked at his side, Shirley saw that his features were calm and his body movements carefully controlled. He looked every inch the commanding figure of a great churchman as he went forward to his first entry on stage.

For a full minute after he appeared before the audience, the play was halted by the thunder of applause. Shirley wondered if somehow the word might have gotten out and that these people knew they were witnessing the desperately courageous act of a great artist. One whom they would never see again. At last, quiet came to the theater and the scene between Hugh and the Cardinal began. For the first minute or so, Hugh faltered slightly in his lines. But Oliver Craft kept this from being too obvious by quickly filling in his speech. After that, the scene went well.

Hugh did not play the Communist leader at so high a pitch as Jeffrey Sayre had; perhaps Lyon Phillips had asked him to tone down his approach to make it less difficult for the star. Yet the ex-doctor managed a biting coldness that made the part just as interesting. The first act came to an end.

Hugh Deering helped Oliver Craft off the stage after the curtain fell. The old star smiled at his new opponent in the play.

"You did a first-class job, my boy," he said. "Just check that opening line before tomorrow. It's a bit tricky."

Dr. Trask came forward, took the star's arm and walked with him to his dressing room. Shirley saw Joy Milland run up to Hugh and kiss him impulsively on both cheeks, noting with some amusement that he drew back in mild annoyance. But the brassy Joy wasn't allowing herself to be gotten rid of; she continued talking to the unhappy Hugh until the character woman also came up to congratulate him. Deciding that three was a crowd, Joy turned to follow the others to the dressing room.

When Charles Victor came by, the character man's eyes brimmed with tears.

"I've spent a half-century in the theater, Miss Grant," he said, "but I've never seen courage to match the Chief's tonight."

Shirley smiled at him. "I remember a night not too long ago when a certain other member of our cast surprised me."

The little actor became flustered. "That—that was nothing."

"I'm afraid I can't agree," she said.

Dr. Trask stayed close to the star for the remainder of the show. It was an evening that Shirley would never forget. When at last the curtain fell, it was like a major battle won. No one from the audience was allowed backstage because of Oliver Craft's illness, and so he was able to get ready quickly for his return journey to the hospital.

The doctor made the trip to the hospital with him, where another nurse would be waiting to do private duty. Meanwhile, Shirley straightened out things in the dressing room. When she had finished, she went out to the stage.

Joy Milland was standing with Lyon Phillips, and when she saw Shirley coming, she excused herself and hurried away. Lyon grinned at Shirley.

"Has it come to an open declaration of war between you two?" he asked.

"Something like that. Joy opened fire on me this afternoon."

"Bless her!" Lyon groaned. "She picked a great time for it."

"I don't care!" Shirley laughed. "After tonight, I don't care about anything."

"We're going to make it. I really think we are," Lyon said delightedly. "Nothing can lick the Chief. He proved that tonight. I'm going to phone Rothstein and see about a replacement for Jeff Sayre's part."

"If the tour does continue, it seems a shame that Hugh can't stay in the role," Shirley said. "He was so good in it."

"I know. He was great," Lyon admitted. "But the part really requires an older man—and a name, if we can get one."

Shirley wasn't convinced. "But we've been doing almost sell-out business."

"And there's another reason," Lyon went on soberly. "If we're lucky enough to get out of this jam, we want the added protection of someone who can step into the Chief's role if it has to be done. I think Oliver would feel better knowing that."

"Perhaps you're right," Shirley said, beginning to see Lyon's point.

"What did he say about Sayre running off and leaving us in the lurch?"

"Nothing at first," Shirley said. "He was too ill to worry about it. Later, he was busy getting himself ready to play, but he did mention once that Sayre had insisted on this right in his contract."

"Rothstein should never have agreed. The union was dead against it. But what are you going to do with a Hollywood swelled head?" Lyon said disgustedly.

"Don't talk that way. I may wind up one of those Hollywood swelled heads myself," a bantering voice said behind them. It was Hugh Deering.

Shirley swung around. "You were wonderful tonight, Hugh."

He nodded. "Especially the way I blew my opening line with the Chief."

"That was nothing," she said. "No one noticed. You were great the rest of the evening."

"But I'll still go back to my old part after this week, if the tour continues. Right, Mr. Stage Manager?"

Lyon put a friendly arm around the ex-doctor. "Right. But not because you didn't make the grade in the part. You did."

"Don't worry," Hugh said easily. "I won't be unhappy. I definitely wouldn't want to work this hard every night."

"I'll give Rothstein a play-by-play description of your greatness," Lyon promised, "and suggest he keep you in mind for a lead when he's casting again."

With that, the tall stage manager walked off and left them. Shirley smiled at Hugh.

"You know," she said, "he's quite likely to do that, and Rothstein may remember."

"Don't build up false hopes," Hugh told her. "It seems to me that everyone in the cast, including the beauteous Joy, gave me a good-luck kiss tonight. Why did you skip me?"

She registered mock-embarrassment. "Plain forgot," she joked. "I'll remedy the omission now." She raised up on tiptoe and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

He touched his face. "That I'll treasure. What a night! I guess the only thing you'd need to make it perfect would be Roger Craft."

Shirley didn't answer. For at that instant, she looked across the stage and saw Roger Craft standing there staring at them.

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Shirley watched Roger's face as he came across the stage toward them. There was nothing in his expression to suggest that he had seen anything that might give him a wrong idea of her relationship with Hugh. Her decision to kiss the ex-doctor on the cheek, in congratulation for his performance, had been an impulsive one. It hadn't meant anything. But if Roger had seen her, it might be hard to explain that.

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