Read Backstage Nurse Online

Authors: Jane Rossiter

Tags: #romance, #nurse, #medical

Backstage Nurse (17 page)

BOOK: Backstage Nurse
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On Thursday night, the radio and television weathermen had given repeated warnings about a storm that would sweep into the Eastern states from the Midwest. The weather in the city had been colder than usual all along, and on Friday morning, snowflakes began to swirl down. By noon, there was a thick coating on the streets that made them treacherous; auto traffic was moving at a creeping pace. Pedestrians, muffled in winter clothes, braced themselves against the driving storm as they scurried from taxi or subway to their various destinations.

Midafternoon came, and still the snow fell. Now the flakes were so thick that visibility was cut to a few feet. Driving was dangerous and many cars remained parked by the curb, heavy layers of snow building on them until they became grotesque in outline. With the coming of deep snow, a silence settled on the city, broken only occasionally by the dismal, loud clatter of a snowplow.

Oliver Craft stared out of the window at the storm for a minute and then moved wearily back to his chair. "This is bad," he told Shirley. "If it continues like this, we'll see precious few at the theater tonight."

Shirley knew it meant a lot to the star that his final evenings be successful. It seemed a miserable twist of fate that the weather should have changed as it had.

"It probably will ease up before night," she suggested, trying to cheer him.

He shook his head. "Not according to the latest weather bulletin. And even if it does ease off, I'm not certain but that it's too late. A lot of people who had planned to be in the city tonight will have changed their plans."

Glancing out at the driving storm, Shirley knew that the old man was right. She wondered what was happening at the theater.

Oliver Craft must have read her thoughts. "Why don't you go down to the Belasco and see what's doing?"

She smiled. "All right. Since you're so curious."

As she left the hotel and braved the storm for the short walk to the Belasco, she knew that the snow would last a good while longer. It was beating down as though it had just begun. When she pushed open the glass door of the theater and let herself in out of the wet, driving snow, she was out of breath. A forlorn line of people was waiting to exchange tickets. From the opposite end of the lobby, Hugh Deering came over to her.

"I thought you might turn up," he said, smiling. He was wearing a lightweight gray coat, with a fawn scarf knotted around his neck, and an English-type gray cap. He looked boyish and charming.

"Oliver was anxious to get a firsthand report on what was happening here." She shook the snow from her kerchief and patted her hair in place.

"The old warhorse still breathing fire?" Hugh glanced at the line. "He's a wonder. But that line-up spells headaches."

"Have there been cancellations?"

"Dozens of them. If this weather keeps up, the Chief will wind up his career playing to empty seats."

Shirley frowned. "But that would be dreadful! It just can't happen!"

Hugh nodded at the line. "I'm afraid it is."

"But can't they change their tickets to tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night has been sold out for two weeks."

"The storm has just got to stop," Shirley said, looking out at the swirling flakes, her pretty face quite dismal.

But it didn't. She had a lot of trouble getting a cab to take Oliver Craft the short distance to the theater. The cabby who took them was full of news about the storm.

"Bad all over New England," he said, peering through his windshield as the laboriously working wipers tried vainly to clear the fast-accumulating snow. "Connecticut is worse than it is here. Lot of the local trains delayed. The hotels in Times Square are jammed with people who've missed trains."

"You see." Oliver Craft turned to Shirley.

"That means that the traffic coming in will be tied up as well."

Backstage, the players stood around in gloomy little groups. Craft greeted them with a nod and went straight to his dressing room. "Ask Lyon to check the house at quarter-hour and let me know," he instructed Shirley.

At eight-fifteen, Lyon came to the door of the star's dressing room. "It isn't good," he said. "The house is just about a third full. Phone has been ringing all day with cancellations."

Oliver Craft sighed. "I'd say we were lucky to have that many. It might be wise to hold the curtain a few minutes for possible latecomers."

At eight-thirty, Lyon Phillips returned, but this time he was smiling. "You won't believe it, sir," he said, bursting with his good news, "but the house is filling up."

The star turned to him, the gaunt face showing surprise. "But how? Who?"

"People who are stranded in town, mostly. The word got around that there were plenty of empty theater seats and they've got the night on their hands. So it looks as if we'll do a sellout business." The stage manager hurried off.

By the time the curtain rose, there wasn't a seat vacant from orchestra to top balcony. Shirley, watching the play from the wings, sensed the special something that both actors and audience contributed to the evening. She had learned in the weeks that she had been with the show that the mood of the audience played a very real part in the way a performance went. Tonight, there was enthusiasm on both sides of the footlights.

But she couldn't help noticing one exception in the company. Charles Victor, the character man, seemed nervous, and his voice wavered several times during his scene with Hugh Deering.

When he made his exit, Shirley went up to him and, seeing that he looked shaky and that his eyes had a glassy expression, asked anxiously, "Are you all right?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine now." He went over to a straight chair near the wall and sat waiting for his next entrance. He looked up at her. "I had to take a pill during the scene. Did you notice?"

"No," Shirley said. Now she really began to worry. Since the night on tour, weeks ago, when he'd had the heart attack on arriving at the theater and she had helped him, she hadn't known the little character actor to be ill. And although she had wondered about him, she had kept his secret, as she had promised. Now it seemed certain that he was in serious trouble again.

"I had a bad time getting to the theater tonight," he said, speaking very slowly. "I thought I'd never make the two blocks from Forty-second Street."

"Are you well enough to go on?"

"Fine now." He gave her a quick smile. "The crisis came out there a few minutes ago. Now that it's over, I feel better."

But Shirley didn't think that he looked or sounded quite himself. She stood nervously in the wings as he went on again and played his second scene in the play. He seemed to manage quite well.

She didn't want to worry Oliver Craft about the little man's illness, but she had to talk to someone. During the opening of the second act, Hugh Deering had a short wait offstage. She took the opportunity to speak to him.

"Did you find Charles Victor shaky in the opening scene?" she asked.

Hugh looked puzzled. "So you noticed it, too. Yes. I wonder what happened to him?"

"He had a heart attack. Or at least a warning pain. He has a chronic condition. Takes nitro pills. I've known for a long while, but he didn't want anyone else to find out."

"So that's it!" Hugh drew a deep breath. "Fine situation! With Oliver like he is. Do you think he'll get through the evening?"

"I think so," Shirley said, although it was more a hope than a certainty. "He took a pill and he seems better."

Then Hugh had to go onstage and she was alone again. Roger Craft had phoned that, due to the storm, he wouldn't get to the city for the closing.

The last curtain fell, and Shirley drew a sigh of relief. Not only because Oliver Craft had managed this show, but because Charles Victor had also made it safely. With some difficulty, she located another taxi and got the star safely back to his hotel.

Only the hurdle of the final performance faced them now. And with the snow still falling, she wondered what kind of situation they would meet in it. She hoped that Charles Victor got safely home through the storm. Or if he was wise, perhaps he had found a room in one of the nearby hotels. Wherever he was, he would be alone and frightened on this snowy night.

Early the following morning, the snow began to ease. And by noon, the sun had come out brightly and snowplows were finished with the main avenues and beginning to clear the side streets. Traffic and pedestrians were moving at a normal rate and the clamor of the city resumed its familiar level. This meant they could count on a capacity house for the closing night.

All day, Oliver Craft was fidgety and anxious, quite unlike his usual self. In the afternoon, Abe Rothstein came and talked for a long time with the old man. Shirley took the opportunity to do most of the star's packing, as he was going to the hospital from the theater. The bags were to be sent ahead that afternoon.

They arrived at the theater earlier than on the previous evening and only Lyon Phillips was there to greet them. He smiled at Oliver Craft. "This is where we wrap it up, Chief."

The star nodded, an expression of sadness on his ascetic face. Shirley mixed his glass of tranquillizer and then went out while he made up.

Lyon was waiting for her. He said, "You missed Joy's big scene last night."

"Really?"

"You bet. She's told everyone in the company but you her success story. She's to do a featured part in 'Meet The Warrens' on the ABC network."

Shirley vaguely remembered the TV show. "What part is she playing?"

Lyon chuckled. "She doesn't think we know, but Charles Victor has the same agent and he told Victor all about it. She's doing the bit part of a comedy maid. Won't be in more than a few half-hours. But that's not the way she tells it."

"I can imagine," Shirley said dryly. "Luckily, she's been avoiding me lately."

"She'll be at Malcolm's party tonight. Maybe she'll tell you then."

"I could miss her performance," Shirley said.

They had all expected the final show to be one of the best, and it was. The house contained many people who had been loyal followers of Oliver Craft for a quarter-century or more. When he came to his last line and said, "Yes, I am going to die, but everything about me you want killed will live," there was the usual hush as the curtain dropped. And then the burst of applause.

On this night, it continued beyond all reason, even when the star took repeated curtain calls alone. Finally, he raised a thin hand to ask for quiet, and in his firm and resonant voice said:

"On behalf of myself and the others who have made this play possible, I thank you. Especially I thank you for giving your support to a play of this type. I hope you will continue to do so in other theaters with other players."

"I like to think that some of the things we of another era value will live on. Decency, humanity, and moral courage among them. These qualities are part of this play, and that is why my company has so enjoyed doing it."

"Acting is a thing of memories. There is little permanency to our profession. We draw on memories to build the characters we play. If we are successful, we imprint an image on your memories for a time. And so, we, in turn, rely on our memories of your appreciation for a far greater part of our pay than you can guess. The reception you have given me this evening will be a treasure that will gladden me as long as memory remains."

The old man gave a courtly bow and the curtain fell for the last time. Shirley knew there were tears in her eyes when he stepped offstage. But he was quite unshaken. He smiled at her. "Now, my dear, on to Memorial and the beginning of a new adventure."

As they walked down the corridor, she knew it was a night she would never forget. As she would never forget this wonderful old man and his courage—this ordeal that he called his "new adventure."

When he had removed his make-up, the members of the cast came to his dressing room and waited in line to take turns at shaking his hand and wishing him well. Even Joy Milland stood back quietly for her turn, and when she passed the nurse, Shirley saw that there were tears in the strange girl's eyes as she smiled at her. There could be no hard feelings on this night. Shirley returned the smile, feeling sorry for this girl who hurt herself so much more than she did others.

After they had gone, she helped the old man on with his coat and they started out toward the stage door. On the way, he hesitated and, leaving her, walked slowly onto the center of the stage again. The curtain was raised now on an empty house, the stage lighted only by a single spotlight from above.

He stood there for several minutes, his head held proudly as he stared out at the vacant seats, as if he were remembering the applause of all the audiences before whom he had played.

After a moment, he left the stage and came back to her. "An old man's whim," he explained.

"It's too bad to leave it all," she said.

With a gentle smile, he corrected her. "I'm not leaving it," he said. "It will be with me wherever I go."

She watched as the taxi carried him out of sight along the wintry street. Then she went back inside to finish packing the things still left in the dressing room.

Hugh Deering came to the door. "Nearly everyone's gone," he said. "They'll be waiting for us at the party."

Somehow, she didn't feel like going. But she knew they wouldn't understand if she didn't. Bending over her packing, she said, "I won't be long."

Suddenly Hugh turned and looked out into the hall. "What was that?"

Sensing his alarm, she went to the door. "What?"

"Sounded like a groan. Then someone falling."

In a flash, it came to her. Charles Victor! "In there," she said. "The opposite dressing room!"

When they opened the door, they found the little character actor stretched out on the floor, dressed for the street. Hugh knelt by him and with expert speed turned him over on his back and ripped open his shirt.

"The pills!" he shouted at her. "Where are they?"

Shirley made a frantic search of the shelf and make-up box, but they weren't there. She knelt by Hugh. "In his pockets. It's the only other place."

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