Read Backstage Nurse Online

Authors: Jane Rossiter

Tags: #romance, #nurse, #medical

Backstage Nurse (9 page)

His eyes showed gratitude as she helped him place the pill under his tongue. Then he made an effort to stand and mumbled to her again what sounded like: "Inside. Inside."

She helped him into his dressing room and led him, half-stumbling, to the largest of the chairs.

She stood over him and saw that the pill was beginning to help him. He raised his head and gestured as he spoke in a hoarse whisper: "The door. Please close the door."

Aware that he did not want to be seen by the others, she did as he asked. Then she came back to him. She wanted to ask him what she should do. Lyon Phillips must be notified. He would have to go on in the old man's part, as he was the general understudy for all the minor male roles.

The character actor seemed to sense what she was thinking. He lifted a pudgy hand to restrain her from leaving him. "I'll be all right. It's almost passed now. The pain was bad. Very bad."

"You can't go on tonight, Mr. Victor," she told him. "You're not fit."

"Yes, yes! I will be all right." His voice was almost normal now. "This has happened before, but I've always had my pills handy. Today, I left them here in the dressing room. The pain came in the taxi on my way to the theater. I was afraid I wouldn't get here in time. I wouldn't have if you hadn't heard me."

Shirley couldn't help feeling that this was the materialization of Hugh Deering's premonition of trouble. She felt it was her duty to let Lyon Phillips know, but she didn't want to upset the old man.

"I really think we must tell the stage manager," she said. "You open the play—and that's only a half hour from now. I'll feel responsible if you try to go on and anything happens."

"No!" Charles Victor's voice was filled with anguish. "Please don't tell them, Miss Grant. It will be the end for me, if you do."

"Nonsense! They'll understand."

"They mustn't know!" The character actor spoke quickly now. "Don't you see what would happen? They'd let me go right away. They'd send me back to New York."

"I'm sure they'd be reasonable," Shirley said.

"Oh, they'd be reasonable all right!" The old man's voice was bitter. "But I'd be out of my job. And any future job, as well. Once the word got around, no management would hire me."

"Do you think it's fair to the others not to tell them?"

He stared at her for a moment. "Yes, I do. I know you won't understand that. But please try! Acting is my life! It is all I have. This heart business is not the type that's likely to be immediately fatal. All I have to do is remember my pills. You can bet I won't forget them again."

"What if you should have an attack onstage?"

"I always keep some with me in my stage costume."

Shirley didn't like carrying on an argument with the sick old man. Yet she saw that he would not give in to her point of view. Time was passing. She glanced at her watch. Curtain time was in twenty minutes.

She sighed. "What do you think I should do?"

"Keep my secret."

"But you know that Oliver Craft is very ill, and with you in this condition—"

"That's the whole point," Victor interrupted her. "No management would take a chance on two dangerously ill actors in a cast. There's nothing to be done about poor Oliver, but they'd let me go at once. Keep my secret, Miss Grant. Let me go on. You won't regret it."

Shirley looked down at the strained face of the pudgy little man. What he had said was true. News of his condition could ruin him in the profession. She was familiar enough with show business to know that. And there was also something in what he had pointed out about this type of heart condition rarely being immediately fatal. He was apparently in the early stages of the disease.

She sighed again. "I don't know what to say."

He turned his chair toward the mirror. "I'll have to hurry my make-up."

"You had an attack like this before, one day in Boston, didn't you?" She remembered now. "That morning you pretended you had gone to sleep in the back of the theater."

He smiled grimly as he touched up his eyebrows. "You have a good memory, Miss Grant."

"And you went on that time."

"I've gone on many times after an attack." He stood up now and came to her with a pathetic smile. "But I must change."

She shrugged. "I hope I'm doing the right thing." Leaving him, she went back to the hallway outside of Oliver Craft's dressing room. She looked at her watch again. Only ten minutes to go. She mustn't let the star know that anything was wrong.

When she entered his dressing room, Craft looked up. "I believe I had a little nap, my dear. Well, that will do me good." He rose slowly, his movements seeming a great effort, as they always did when he was in the privacy of his own quarters; onstage and in public, he managed to cover his weakness. Standing before the mirror, he carefully put the Cardinal's cap on and turned to Shirley with a smile. "Now we'll find out how Toronto feels about us."

Standing in the wings waiting for the curtain to rise, Shirley knew a double worry. Each night, she felt the strain of whether Oliver Craft would get through his performance safely; now there was this new concern for Charles Victor.

Lyons Phillips gave a signal and the curtain rose. As usual, there was a round of applause. Then the character woman made her entrance, and as Shirley watched with tightening throat, Charles Victor, as the elderly priest, followed onstage.

The dialogue between the two was at a low key and set the scenes that followed. Once, Victor paused in an unaccustomed place, and for a moment she held her breath, picturing his collapse there before the capacity audience. But it was apparently only a new trick of timing for he continued with his usual vigor. By the time that Hugh Deering entered, Shirley had lost most of her nervousness.

As the character actor made his exit on the opposite side of the stage, Oliver Craft murmured almost to himself: "Charles did very well tonight. Very well, indeed."

Shirley gave the star a quick glance, almost certain that he knew her secret and was playing a grim joke on her. But she saw by the placid expression on his face that this wasn't so. With a sigh of relief, she stood aside as he went through the door for his first entrance.

The rest of the play went as well as it had in Boston. The audience gave the usual ovation for Oliver Craft at the final curtain and he, in turn, gave a touching speech. Listening, Shirley thought it sounded almost like a farewell speech.

Again, there were the crowds of backstage well-wishers. Shirley stood to one side as Oliver Craft and the other members of the cast held court. In the excitement, she didn't notice that Charles Victor had managed to work around to her until he spoke.

"Thank you, Miss Grant," he said. "I'm glad I didn't let you down."

"I was worried," she told him.

"I can believe that. But don't be any more. I'm feeling a bit under the weather so I'm going back to the hotel now. I just wanted to let you know how much what you did for me tonight meant." His face was heavy and tired looking as he squeezed her arm and then vanished in the crowd.

A new voice came to Shirley. "Just what did that touching scene indicate?" It was Jeffrey Sayre, who stared at her with amused curiosity.

"Oh, I did a small favor for him," she said. "I picked up something that he had forgotten."

"Well, he certainly seemed very emotional about it. From where I stood, it looked like the third act in a Victorian melodrama."

"Really?" Shirley knew that he suspected something, but couldn't figure out what the mystery was. "I hadn't noticed."

Then Hugh Deering came over, and Sayre moved on. Hugh said, "We're going to have supper in the coffee shop at the hotel. Will you join us?"

"Depends on how Mr. Craft is." She smiled. "Maybe."

As it happened, the star had one of his good nights. After she had seen him safely in bed and given him his midnight medication, she took the elevator down to the coffee shop.

Entering, she heard a shrill voice from the other end of the long room call out: "Here, darling!" And she saw that Joy Milland was with Hugh and Lyon. Hugh hadn't warned her about Joy, since he probably hadn't expected that she would force her company on them.

"I was afraid you wouldn't see us and leave, dear," Joy explained as she came up to the booth where the three sat. Joy had already seated herself next to Hugh, so Shirley shared Lyon's bench.

"Well, the worst night's over," Phillips said, sipping his coffee. "From now on, it's easy for me."

"Until Monday morning in Cincinnati," Shirley reminded him with a smile.

"Don't say it!" he protested.

"I didn't think we were nearly as good as in Boston." Joy waved her long cigarette holder. She was wearing black slacks and a sweater, and looked like a typical method actress.

"The Chief seemed very happy with the performance," Shirley said.

Hugh nodded. "It looked okay to me. Though for awhile I had an idea Charles Victor was a bit wobbly."

Joy's face registered disdain. "That funny little man! He's not my idea for the part at all."

Lyon Phillips spoke quietly. "He's a very good actor. You'll be lucky if you ever play with as many stars as he has."

Joy hunched her shoulders and grimaced. "In the old days it was different. Everybody worked with everybody. There were hundreds of shows. Now you have to be really good!"

Hugh Deering groaned. "Don't tell anyone else that, honey. You'll find yourself out of a job."

Shirley intervened. "I agree with Lyon. I think Charles Victor represents all that is good in the theater. I'm glad he's with the company, and I hope he stays with it."

"He's a pretty old man for a tour like this," Hugh said, lighting a cigarette. "I should think he would have had enough of it by now."

"I don't agree," Shirley argued. "It's wonderful that he's able to be active. I think he has a lot of courage."

Hugh laughed. "Call it what you like. I don't enjoy acting enough to want to be touring when I'm over seventy."

"It doesn't mean that much to you," Shirley said.

"That's right."

"But it does to Charles Victor. It's everything to him—his life." Shirley paused. "Of course you're different. Maybe that's your problem— you don't really care enough about anything."

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Shirley didn't think any more about that conversation with Hugh Deering until a week later, when they arrived in Cincinnati. As usual, the company went to the theater on Monday afternoon to get familiar with the stage and their quarters. Oliver Craft had had a poor weekend, and once she had been on the point of phoning Dr. Trask in Boston. But Monday morning, the old actor seemed almost himself; and when friends called the hotel and asked that he go to an afternoon party, he accepted.

She watched him leave from the stage door. He waved happily at her from the back seat of the big limousine and then his hosts drove him off. Shirley walked back to her dressing room with some misgivings. She hoped they wouldn't tire the old man out; tonight was another opening. But perhaps he knew best. The afternoon excitement might occupy his mind and prevent him from worrying.

Suddenly from one of the dressing rooms, a voice called: "You must be doing some heavy thinking!"

She stopped and turned around to face Hugh, who stood just outside the door of the dressing room behind her. He laughed. "You walked right by me and didn't even say hello."

"The Chief just went out for the afternoon," she explained. "I was wondering if he made a mistake in going."

"Some kind of a do?"

"An intimate get-together," she said. "A few of his elderly friends."

"Likely do him a world of good," Hugh said. Then, in a different tone, he added, "Come inside. I want you to see something."

She followed him into his dressing room. He had his things unpacked and his costume was hung up waiting for the evening performance. "Very homey," she observed.

He bent over his open trunk and came up with a small black bag. "I show you this because the other evening you suggested I had no deep feelings. And you were wrong. This little bag proves it."

She saw that it was his medical bag. His tone was mocking and there was a smile on his face as he spoke. But she knew this was just a defense. The bag did have nostalgic memories for him. She said, "I think you should be making more active use of it."

He put the bag on his make-up shelf and, opening it, studied its contents. He spoke without looking up at her. "It doesn't mean quite that much to me. But I have kept it and taken it along wherever I've been. A kind of trophy, I guess."

Shirley stepped over and glanced into the bag. "I see you have all the standards. A stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff, and a good supply of drugs."

He stared into the bag and, laughing without humor, said, "Oh, I was a regular M.D., I tell you."

"You still are."

He snapped the bag shut and faced her. "Not anymore."

"Denying facts doesn't change them," she pointed out.

Taking the bag back to the trunk, he dropped it in. "That's finished," he said, turning to her. "But I did want to let you know that once there was something I really did care about."

She studied him with a deep feeling of sympathy. "I've noticed that, since I've known you, I've never seen you with too much to drink."

He nodded. "Oh, I'm cured now. I've found out that I'm strictly a two-drink character. I never touch the third." His voice became bitter. "It's too bad I took so long finding it out. A man had to die before I really knew."

Her eyes were gentle as they studied his tormented face. "That wasn't your fault."

"That's another pretty fable," he said. "I wouldn't believe it if old Aesop himself sprung it on me." Then, his mood changing, he glanced at his watch. "Say, we have a good part of the afternoon yet. And you're free. There's a lot of nice countryside around here. Why not rent a car and enjoy some of it?"

Shirley hesitated. "I don't know. It sounds fun, but—"

He came over and took her arm and led her out of the dressing room. "This is an inspiration." He grinned. "I get them very rarely. Don't spoil it."

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