Elizabeth Alexander Heermann wrote short stories and serials for the Post under the pen name “Elizabeth Alexander.” Her story “Fifty-Two Weeks for Florette” was a finalist for the O. Henry Prize in 1921. The tearjerker tale follows the son of a traveling acrobat as he falls away from his mother’s life.
Published on August 13, 1921
Content warning: Racial slurs
It had been over two months since Freddy Le Fay’s bill had been paid, and Miss Nellie Blair was worried. She had written to Freddy’s mother repeatedly, but there had been no answer.
“It’s all your own fault, sister. You should never have taken Freddy,” Miss Eva said sharply. “I told you so at the time, when I saw his mother’s hair. And of course Le Fay is not her real name. It looks to me like a clear case of desertion.”
“I can’t believe it. She seemed so devoted,” faltered Miss Nellie.
“Oh, a girl like that!” Miss Eva sniffed. “You should never have consented.”
“Well, the poor thing was so worried, and if it meant saving a child from a dreadful life — ”
“There are other schools more suitable.”
“But, sister, she seemed to have her heart set on ours. She begged me to make a little gentleman out of him.”
“As if you could ever do that!”
“Why not?” asked Mary, their niece.
“That dreadful child!”
“Freddy isn’t dreadful!” cried Mary hotly.
“With that atrocious slang! Won’t eat his oatmeal! And he’s such a queer child — queer! So pale, never laughs, doesn’t like anyone. Why should you take up for him? He doesn’t even like you. Hates me, I suppose.”
“It’s because we are so different from the women he has known,” said Mary.
“I should hope so! Well, sister, what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know what to do,” sighed Miss Nellie. “He hasn’t any other relatives as far as I know. And the summer coming on, what shall we do?”
“Nothing for it but to send him to an orphanage if she doesn’t write soon,” said Miss Eva.
“Oh, auntie, you wouldn’t!”
“Why not? How can we afford to give children free board and education?”
“It’s only one child.”
“It would soon be a dozen, if we once started it.”
“I’ll wait another month,” said Miss Nellie, “and then, really, something will have to be done.”
The girl looked out of the window.
“There he is now,” she said, “sitting on the stone wall at the end of the garden. It’s his favorite spot.”
“What on earth he wants to sit there for — away from all the other children! He never plays. Look at him! Just sitting there — not moving. How stupid!” exclaimed Miss Eva impatiently.
“I do declare, I believe he’s fallen asleep,” said Miss Nellie.
Freddy was not asleep. He had only to close his eyes and it would all come back to him. Memories that he could not put into words, sensations without definite thought, crowded in upon him. The smell — the thick smell of grease paint, choking powder, dust, gas, old walls, bodies and breath, and sharp perfume; the sickening, delicious, stale, enchanting, never-to-be-forgotten odor of the theater; the nerves’ sudden tension at the cry of “Ov-a-chure”; their tingling as the jaded music blares; the lift of the heart as the curtain rises; the catch in the throat as Florette runs on to do her turn.
Florette was a performer on the trapeze in vaudeville. Her figure was perfect from the strenuous daily exercise. She was small, young and a shade too blond. First she appeared in a sort of blue evening dress, except that it was shorter even than a debutante’s. She ran out quickly from the wings, bowed excessively, smiled appealingly, and skipping over to the trapeze seized the two iron rings that hung from ropes. Lifting her own weight by the strength in her slender wrists, she flung her legs upward and hooked her knees into the rings. Then hanging head downward she swung back and forth; flung herself upright again, sat and swung; climbed to the topmost bar of the trapeze and hung down again. Her partner ran on and repeated her monkeylike maneuvers. Then Florette held his hands while he swung upside down; he held Florette while she swung upside down. They turned head over heels, over and over each other, up and down, catching and slipping, and adjusting their balance, in time to gay tunes.
Sometimes the audience clapped. Sometimes they were too familiar with their kind of flirtation with death to clap. Then Florette and her partner would invent something a little more daring. They would learn to balance themselves on chairs tilted on two legs on the trapeze, or Florette would hang by only one hand, or she would support her partner by a strap held in her teeth. Sometimes Florette’s risks were great enough to thrill the audience with the thought of death.
The thought of a slip, broken bones, delighted the safe people in comfortable chairs. They laughed. Florette laughed, too, for Freddy was waiting in the wings.
There were mothers in the audience who cooked and mended, swept and dusted, ran up and down innumerable stairs, washed greasy dishes, wore ugly house dresses, slaved and scolded and got chapped hands, all for their children. Florette, always dainty and pretty, had nothing to do but airily, gracefully swing, and smile. Other mothers spent their lives for their little boys. Florette only risked hers twice a day.
While the partner played an accordion Florette ran out for her quick change. Freddy was waiting, with her dress hung over a chair. He flew to meet her. His eager, nimble fingers unfastened the blue frock. He slipped the next costume over her head without mussing a single beloved blond hair. The second costume was a tightfitting silver bodice with a fluff of green skirt underneath. Freddy had it fastened up in a twinkling. Florette ran out again and pulled herself up into the trapeze.
While Florette went through the second part of her act Freddy folded up the blue costume and trudged upstairs with it. Florette’s dressing room was usually up four flights. Freddy put the blue dress on a coat hanger and wrapped a muslin cover about it. Then he trudged down the four flights again, with the third costume over his arm. It was a Chinese jacket and a pair of tight short blue-satin trousers, and Freddy was very proud of this confection. He stood as a screen for Florette while she put on the trousers, and there are not many little boys who have a mamma who could look so pretty in them.
Florette skipped out lightly and finished her act by swinging far out over the audience, back and forth, faster and faster, farther and farther out, until it seemed as if she were going to fling herself into the lap of some middle-aged gentleman in the third row. His wife invariably murmured something about a hussy as Florette’s pretty bare legs flashed overhead. The music played louder, ended with a boom from the drum. Florette flung herself upright, kissed her hands, the curtain fell, and the barelegged hussy ran up to the dressing room where her little son waited.
Freddy had already hung up and shrouded the silver-and-green costume, and was waiting for the Chinese one. He pounced upon it, muttered about some wrinkles, put it into place and went to the dressing table to hand Florette the cold cream. He found her make-up towel, all caked with red and blue, which she had flung down on the floor. He patted her highly glittering hair and adjusted a pin. He marshaled the jars and little pans and sticks of grease paint on her shelf into an orderly row and blew off the deep layers of powder she had scattered. Then he took down her street dress from its hook and slipped it deftly over her shoulders and had it buttoned up before Florette could yawn. He handed her her saucy bright hat. He flung himself into his own coat.
“Well, le’s go, Florette!” cried Freddy gayly, with dancing eyes. He had never called her mamma. She was too little and cute.
Then they would go to the hotel, never the best, where they were stopping. The room with its greenish light, its soiled lace curtains, the water pitcher always cracked, the bed always lumpy, the sheets always damp, was home to Freddy. Florette made it warm and cozy even when there was no heat in the radiator. She had all sorts of clever home-making tricks. She toasted marshmallows over the gas jet; she spread a shawl on the trunk; or she surprised Freddy by pinning pictures out of the funny page on the wall. She could make the nicest tea on a little alcohol stove she carried in her trunk. There was always a little feast after the theater on the table that invariably wabbled. Freddy would pretend that the foot of the iron bed was a trapeze. How they laughed! On freezing nights in Maine or Minnesota, Florette would let Freddy warm his feet against hers, or she would get up and spread her coat that looked just like fur over the bed.
When they struck a new town at the beginning of each week Freddy and Florette would go bumming and see all the sights, whether it was Niagara Falls or just the new Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. Freddy would have been sorry for little boys who had to stay in one home all the time — that is, if he had known anything at all about them. But the life of the strolling player was all that he had ever known, and he found it delightful, except for the dreaded intervals of “bookin’ the ac’.”
The dream of every vaudevillian is to be booked for fifty-two unbroken weeks in the year, but few attain such popularity. Florette’s seasons were sometimes long, sometimes short; but there always came the tedious worrying intervals when managers and agents must be besought for work. Perhaps she would find that people were tired of her old tricks, and she would have to rehearse new ones, or interpolate new songs and gags. Then the new act would be tried out at some obscure vaudeville house, and if it didn’t go the rehearsals and trampings to agents must begin all over again. Freddy shared the anxieties and hardships of these times. But the only hardship he really minded was the loss of Florette, for of course the pretty Miss Le Fay, who was only nineteen on the agents’ books, could not appear on Broadway with a great big boy like Freddy.
However, the bad times always ended, and Florette and Freddy would set out gayly once more for Oshkosh or Atlanta, Dallas or Des Moines. Meals expanded, Florette bought a rhinestone-covered comb, and the two adventurers indulged in an orgy of chocolate drops. With the optimism of the actor, they forgot all about the dismal past weeks, and saw the new tour as never ending.
Freddy felt himself once more a real and important human being with a place in the sun, not just a child to be shushed by a dingy landlady while his mother was out looking for a job. He knew that he was as necessary a part of Florette’s act as her make-up box. He believed himself to be as necessary a part of her life as the heart in her breast, for Florette lavished all her beauty, all her sweetness on him. No Johns for Florette, pretty and blond though she was. To the contempt of her contemporaries, Florette refused every chance for a free meal. Freddy was her sweetheart, her man. She had showered so many pretty love words on him, she had assured him so often that he was all in the world she wanted that Freddy was stunned one day to hear that he was to have a papa.
“I don’ wan’ one,” said Freddy flatly. “I ain’t never had one, an’ I ain’t got no use for one.”
Florette looked cross — an unusual thing.
“Aw, now, Freddy, don’ be a grouch,” she said.
“I don’ wan’ one,” repeated Freddy.
“You ought to be glad to get a papa!” cried Florette.
“Makes you respectable.”
“Who’d believe I was a widow — in this profession?”
Freddy still looked blank.
“Well,” said Florette, “you’re goin’ to get a nice papa, so there now!”
Then the cruel truth dawned on Freddy. It was Florette who wanted a papa. He had not been enough for her. In some way Florette had found him lacking.
Tactfully, Freddy dropped the subject of papas, wooed Florette and tried to atone for his shortcomings. He redoubled his compliments, trotted out all the love words he knew, coaxed Florette with everything she liked best in him. He even offered to have his nails filed. At night, in bed, he kissed Florette’s bare back between the shoulder blades, and snuggled close to her, hugging her desperately with his little thin arms.
“Flo,” he quavered, “you — you ain’t lonesome no more, are you?”
“Me? Lonesome? Whatcher talkin’ about, kid?” sleepily murmured Florette.
“You ain’t never lonesome when you got me around, are you, Flo?”
“Sure I ain’t. Go to sleep, honey.”
“But Florette — ”
Florette was dozing.
“Oh, Florette! Florette!”
“Florette, if you ain’t lonesome — ”
“Sh-h-h, now, sh-h-h! Le’s go to sleep.”
“But, Florette, you don’ wan’ — you don’ wan’ — a pop — ”
“Sh-h-h! Sh-h-h! I’m so tired, honey.”
Florette slept. Freddy lay awake, but he lay still so as not to disturb her. His arms ached, but he dared not let her go. Finally he slept, and dreamed of a world in which there was no Florette. He shuddered and kicked his mother. She gave him a little impatient shove. He woke. Day was dawning. It was Florette’s wedding day. Freddy did not know it until Florette put on her best coral-velvet hat with the jet things dangling over her ears.
“You ain’ gonna wear that hat,” said Freddy severely. “It’s rainin’.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna wear this hat,” said Florette, pulling her blond earbobs into greater prominence. “An’ you put on your best suit an’ new necktie. We’re goin’ to a weddin’.”
Her tone was gay, arch, her eyes were happy.
“Who — whose?” Freddy faltered.
“Mine!” chirped Florette. “I’m goin’ to get you that papa I promised you.”
Freddy turned away.
“Sulkin’!” chided Florette. “Naughty, jealous boy!”
The new papa did not appear so formidable as Freddy had expected. In fact, he turned out to be only Howard, Florette’s acrobatic partner. Freddy philosophically reflected that if one must have a new papa, far better so to call Howard; who necessarily encroached on Florette’s time, than a stranger who might take up some of her leisure hours.
But Freddy received a distinct shock when the new papa joined them after the evening performance and accompanied them up to their room.
Freddy had always regarded Florette’s room as his too. He felt that the new papa was an intruder in their home. Alas! It soon became all too apparent that it was Freddy who was de trop, or, as he would have expressed it, a Mister Buttinski.
They were having a little supper of pickles and cheese and liver sausage and jam. Florette and the papa drank out of a bottle by turns and laughed a great deal. Florette seemed to think the papa very clever and funny. She laughed at everything he said. She looked at him with shining eyes. She squeezed his hand under the table. Freddy tried in vain to attract her attention. Finally he gave up and sat staring at the oblivious couple with a stupid expression.
“That kid’s half asleep,” said the new papa.
Florette looked at Freddy and was annoyed by his vacant eyes.
“Go to bed right away,” she commanded.
Freddy looked at her in amazement.
“Ain’t you goin’, too, Florette?” he asked.
“No, you go on — go to sleep.”
“Git into that nice li’l’ cot an’ go by-by, said the new papa genially.
Freddy had not seen the cot before. It had been moved in during his absence at the theater, and stood white, narrow and lonely, partly concealed by a screen.
“I — I always slep’ with Florette,” faltered Freddy.
This seemed to amuse the new papa. But Florette flushed and looked annoyed.
“Now, Freddy, are you goin’ to be a grouch?” she wailed.
Freddy was kissed good night, and went to sleep in the cot. He found it cold and unfriendly. But habit, the much maligned, is kind as well as cruel; if it can accustom us to evil, so can it soften pain. Freddy was beginning to assume proprietary airs toward the cot, which appeared in every town, and even to express views as to the relative values of cots in Springfield, Akron or Joliet — when one night he woke to hear Florette sobbing.
Freddy lay awake listening. He had sobbed, too, when he was first banished to the cot. Was Florette missing him as he had missed her? Ah, if she at last had seen that papas were not half so nice as Freddys, he would not be hard on her. His heart swelled with forgiveness and love. He stole on tiptoe to Florette’s bedside.
“Flo,” he whispered.
The sobbing ceased. Florette held her breath and pretended to be asleep. Freddy wriggled his little thin body under the covers and threw his arms around Florette. With a gulp, she turned and threw her arms around him. They clasped each other tight and clung without speaking. They lay on the edge of the bed, holding their breath in order not to wake the papa who snored loudly. Freddy’s cheeks and hair were wet, a cold tear trickled down his neck, his body ached from the hard edge of the bed; but he was happy, as only a child or a lover can be, and Freddy was both.
In the morning the papa was cross. He did not seem to care for his own breakfast, but concentrated his attention on Freddy’s. Freddy had always been accustomed to a nice breakfast of tea and toast and jam, but Howard insisted on ordering oatmeal for him.
“Naw, Freddy can’t stand oatmeal,” Florette objected.
“It’s good for him,” said Howard, staring severely at his son across the white-topped restaurant table.
“I don’ see no use forcin’ a person to eat what they can’t stomach,” said Florette.
“Yeah, tha’s the way you’ve always spoiled that kid. Look a’ them pale cheeks! Li’l’ ole pale face!” Howard taunted, stretching a teasing hand toward Freddy. “Mamma’s boy! Reg’lar sissy, he is!”
He gave Freddy a poke in the ribs. Freddy shrank back, made himself as small as possible in his chair, looked mutely at Florette.
“Aw, cut it out, Howard,” she begged. “Quit raggin’ the kid, can’t you?”
“Mamma’s blessed sugar lump!” jeered Howard, with an ugly gleam in his eye. “Ought to wear a bib with pink ribbons, so he ought. Gimme a nursin’ bottle for the baby, waiter!”
The impertinence of this person amazed Freddy. He could only look at his tormentor speechlessly. Freddy and Florette had been such great chums that she had never used the maternal prerogative of rudeness. He had never had any home life, so he was unaware of the coolness with which members of a family can insult one another. Howard’s tones, never low, were unusually loud this morning, and people turned around to laugh at the blushing child. The greasy waiter grinned and set the oatmeal which Howard had ordered before Freddy.
“Now then, young man,” commanded Howard sternly, “you eat that, and you eat it quick!”
Freddy obeyed literally, swallowing as fast as he could, with painful gasps and gulps, fighting to keep the tears back. Florette reached under the table and silently squeezed his knee. He flashed her a smile and swallowed a huge slimy mouthful.
“You ain’t eatin’ nothin’ yourse’f, Howard,” said Florette acidly. `W’y don’ you have some oatmeal?”
“Tha’s right!” shouted Howard. “Side with the kid against me! Tha’s all the thanks I get for tryin’ to make a man out o’ the li’l’ sissy. Oughts known better’n to marry a woman with a spoiled brat.”
“Sh-h-h!” whispered Florette. “Don’ tell the whole resterunt about your fam’ly troubles.”
“Say,” hissed Howard, bending down toward her and thrusting out his jaw, “lay off o’ me, will yer?”
“Lay off yourse’f!” retorted Florette under her breath. “If you wanna fight le’s go back to the hotel where it’s private.”
“I don’ min’ tellin’ the world I bin stung!” roared Howard.
Florette flushed up to the slightly darker roots of her too-blond hair.
“You?” she gasped furiously. “After all I’ve put up with!”
“Say, you ain’t got any kick comin’! I treated you white, marryin’ you, an’ no questions asked.”
“What-ta you mean?” breathed Florette, growing deathly pale.
Freddy, alarmed, half rose from his chair.
“Sit down there, you!” roared Howard. “What-ta I mean, Miss Innocence?” he said, mimicking Florette’s tone. “Oh, no, of course you ain’t no idea of what I mean!”
“Come on, Freddy,” Florette broke in quickly. “It’s a katzellammer. He ain’t got over last night yet.’
She seized Freddy’s hand and walked rapidly toward the door. Howard lurched after her, followed by the interested stares of the spectators. On the street he caught up with her and the quarrel recommenced.
The act went badly that afternoon. It must be hard to frolic in midair with a heavy heart. Under cover of the gay music there were angry muttered words and reproaches.
“Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” Florette would trill happily to the audience as she poised on one toe. “What-ta you tryin’ to do — shake me off’n the bar?” she would mutter under her breath to her partner.
“Tha’s right! Leggo o’ me an’ lemme bus’ my bean, damn you!” snarled Howard. And to the audience he sang, “Oh, ain’t it great to have a little girlie you can trust for — life!”
They were still muttering angrily as they came off. The handclapping had been faint.
“Aw, for God’s sake, stop your jawin’!” half screamed Florette. “It ain’t no more my fault than it is yours. If they don’ like us they don’ like us, tha’s all.”
She ran up the stairs sobbing. Howard followed her. They shared a dressing room now. It was small, and Freddy was in the way, although he tried to squeeze himself into the corner by the dingy stationary washstand. Howard shoved Freddy. Florette protested. The quarreling broke out afresh. Howard tipped over a bottle of liquid white. Florette screamed at him, and he raised his fist. Freddy darted out of his corner.
“Say, ya big stiff, cut out that rough stuff, see?” cried little pale Freddy in the only language of chivalry that he knew.
Howard whirled upon him furiously, calling him a name that Freddy did not understand, but Florette flung herself between them and caught the blow.
“He certainly looks as if he had fallen asleep,” Miss Nellie Blair repeated. “Better run out and get him, Mary. He might tumble off the wall.”
As Mary went out a maid came in.
“A gen’l’mun to see you, Miss Blair,” she announced.
“Is it a parent?” asked Miss Nellie.
The maid’s eyebrows twitched, and she looked faintly grieved, as all good servants do when they are forced to consider someone whom they cannot acknowledge as their superior.
“No ma’am, he doesn’t look like a parent,” she complained. “He really is a very queer-lookin’ sort of person, ma’am. I wouldn’t know exactly where to place him. Shall I say you are out, ma’am?”
“Yes,” said Miss Eva. “No doubt he wants to sell an encyclopedia.”
“No, let him come in,” said Miss Nellie. “It might be a reporter about Madame d’Avala,” she added, turning to her sister. “Sometimes they look queer.”
“If it turns out to be an encyclopedia I shall leave you at once,” said Miss Eva. “You are so kind-hearted that you will look through twenty-four volumes, and miss your dinner — ”
But the gentleman who came in carried no books, nor did he look like one who had ever been associated with them. Carefully dressed in the very worst of taste from his scarfpin to his boots, he had evidently just been too carefully shaved, for there were scratches on his wide ludicrous face, and his smile was as rueful as a clown’s.
“The Misses Blair, I presume?” he asked in what was unmistakably his society manner, and he held out a card.
Miss Eva took it and read aloud, “Mr. Bert Brannigan, Brannigan and Bowers, Black-Face Comedians.”
“Ah?” murmured Miss Nellie, who was always polite even in the most trying circumstances.
But Miss Eva could only stare at the rich brown suit, the lavender tie and matching socks and handkerchief.
“Well?” said Miss Eva.
Mr. Brannigan cleared his throat and looked cautiously about the room. His heavy clownlike face was troubled.
“Where’s the kid?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“What child?” Miss Eva snapped.
“You’ve come to see one of our pupils?” Miss Nellie faltered.
“W’y, Miss Le Fay’s li’l’ boy.”
“Sure! Does he — he don’t — you ain’t tole ‘im yet, have you?”
“Told him what?”
“My God, don’t you know?”
Bert Brannigan stared at the ladies, mopping his brow with the lavender handkerchief.
“Please explain yourself, Mr. Brannigan,” said Miss Eva.
“She’s dead. I thought you knew.”
“Miss Le Fay is dead?” gasped Miss Nellie.
“Why weren’t we told?” asked Miss Eva.
“It was in the papers,” said Bert. “But they didn’t give Florette no front-page headlines, an’ maybe you don’t read the theatrical news.”
“No,” said Miss Eva.
“Well, not bein’ in the profession,” Mr. Brannigan said, as if he were apologizing for her.
He sat down and continued to mop his brow mechanically. The two sisters stared in dismay at the clown who had brought bad news.
“W’at I don’ know is how to tell the kid,” said Bert. “He was nutty about Florette; didn’t give a darn for no one else. I bin on the bill with them two, lots of times, an’ I seen how it was. The money ain’t goin’ to be no comfort to that kid!”
“Florette’s insurance — made out to him. Tha’s w’y I come. She wan’ed him to stay on here, see, till he was all educated. They’s enough too. She was always insured heavy for the kid. They’s some back money comin’ to you too. She tole me. The reason w’y she didn’ sen’ it on was because she was out of luck an’ broke, see?”
“But why didn’t Miss Le Fay write to us?” asked Miss Nellie. “If she was in difficulties we — ”
“Naw, Florette wasn’ that kind; nev’ put up any hard-luck story, y’ un’erstan’. But she’d bin outa work, sick. An’ w’en she come back it looked like her ac’ was a frost. I run up on her in K.C., an’ — ”
“What is K.C.?”
“Why, Kansas City! We was on the bill there two weeks ago. Me an’ Florette was ole friends, see? No foolishness, if you know what I mean. I’m a married man myse’f — Bowers there on the card’s my wife — but me an’ Florette met about five years ago, an’ kep’ on runnin’ onto one another on the bill, first one place an’ then another. So she was glad to see me again, an’ me her. ‘W’y, w’ere’s Freddy?’ I says first thing. An’ then I never seen any person’s face look so sad. But she begun tellin’ me right off w’at a fine place the kid was at, an’ how the theayter wasn’t no place for a chile. An’ she says, ‘Bert, I wan’ him to stay w’ere he’s happy an’ safe,’ she says. ‘Even if I nev’ see him again,’ she says. Well, it give me the shivers then. Psychic, I guess.”
Bert paused, staring into space.
“And then?” Miss Nellie asked gently.
“Well, like I was tellin’ you, Florette had been playin’ in hard luck. Now I don’ know whether you ladies know anything about the vodvil game. Some ac’s is booked out through the circuit from N’ Yawk; others is booked up by some li’l’ fly-by-night agent, gettin’ a date here an’ a date there, terrible jumps between stands, see, and nev’ knowin’ one week where you’re goin’ the nex’, or whether at all. Well, Florette was gettin’ her bookin’ that way. An’ on that you gotta make good with each house you play, get me? An’ somethin’ had went wrong with the ac’ since I seen it las’. It useter be A Number 1, y’ un’erstan’, but looked like Florette had lost int’rust or somethin’. She didn’t put no pep into it, if you know what I mean. An’ vodvil’s gotta be all pep. Then, too, her an’ that partner of hers jawin’ all the time somethin’ fierce. I could hear him raggin’ her that af’noon, an’ me standin’ in the wings, an’ they slipped up on some of their tricks terrible, an’ the audience laughed. But not with ’em, at ’em, y’ un’erstan’! Well, so the ac’ was a fros’, an’ they was canceled.”
“Fired, I guess you’d call it. They was to play again that night an’ then move on, see?”
“An’ they didn’t have no bookin’ ahead. Florette come an’ talked to me again, an’ she says again she wanted Freddy to be happy, an’ git a better start ‘n she’d had an’ all. ‘An’, Bert,’ she says, ‘if anything ev’ happens to me you go an’ give ‘um the money for Freddy,’ she says.”
“Poor thing! Perhaps she had a premonition of her death,” murmured Miss Nellie.
Bert gave her a queer look.
“Yeah — yes, ma’am, p’raps so. I was watchin’ her from the wings that night,” he went on. “The ac’ was almos’ over, an’ I couldn’t see nothin’ wrong. Howard had run off an’ Florette was standin’ up on the trapeze kissin’ her han’s like she always done at the finish. But all of a sudden she sort of trem’led an’ turned ha’f way roun’ like she couldn’t make up her min’ what to do, an’ los’ her balance, an’ caught holt of a rope — an’ let go — an’ fell.”
Miss Nellie covered her face with her hands. Miss Eva turned away to the window.
“She was dead w’en I got to her,” said Bert.
“Be careful!” said Miss Eva sharply. “The child is coming in.”
“Freddy wasn’t asleep at all,” said Mary, opening the door. “He was just playing a game, but he won’t tell me — Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn’t know anyone was here.”
Freddy had stopped round-eyed, open-mouthed with incredulous delight.
“Bert!” he gasped. “The son of a gun!”
“Freddy!” cried the Misses Blair.
But Bert held out his arms and Freddy ran into them.
“Gee, Bert, I’m glad to see ya!” rejoiced Freddy.
“Me too, kid, glad to see you! How’s the boy, huh? Gettin’ educated, huh? Swell school, ain’t it?” babbled Bert, fighting for time.
“Aw, it’s all right, I guess,” Freddy replied listlessly, glancing at the Misses Blair. Then turning again with eager interest to Bert, “But say, Bert, what in the hell a — I mean what-ta you doin’ here?”
“Why — ah — ah — jus’ stoppin’ by to say howdy, see, an’ — ”
“Playin’ in N’ Yawk?”
“Jus’ come in?”
Freddy drew his breath in quickly.
“Say, Bert, you — you ain’t seen Florette anywheres?”
“Where is she, Bert?”
There was a deathly hush.
Then Miss Eva motioned to Miss Nellie and said, “If you will excuse us, Mr. Brannigan, we have some arrangements to make about the concert tonight. Madame d’Avala is to sing in the school auditorium, a benefit performance,” and she went out, followed by her sister and niece.
“Where’s Florette?” Freddy asked again, his voice trembling with eagerness.
“I — seen her in K. C., sonny.”
“How’s the ac’?”
“Fine! Fine! Great!”
“Florette — all right?”
“Why, what made you think any different?”
“Who hooks her up now, Bert?”
“She hires the dresser at the theater.”
“I could ’a’ kep’ on doin’ it,” said Freddy with a sigh.
“Aw, now, kid, it’s better for you here, gettin’ educated an’ all.”
“I don’t like it, Bert.”
“You don’t like it?”
“You don’t like it! After all she done!”
“I hate this ole school. I wanna leave. You tell Florette.”
“Aw, now, Freddy — ”
“I’m lonesome. I don’t like nobody here.” His voice dropped. “An’ — an’ they don’t like me.”
“Aw, now, Freddy — ”
“Maybe Miss Mary does. But Miss Eva don’t. Anyway, I ain’t no use to anybody here. What’s the sense of stayin’ where you ain’t no use? An’ they’re always callin’ me down. I don’t do nothin’ right. I can’t even talk so’s they’ll like it. Florette liked the way I talked all right. An’ you get what I mean, don’t you, Bert? The kids are stuck up, too, Bert. But they don’t know nothin’. Why, they don’t know nothin’, Bert! Why, there’s one boy ain’t ever been inside a theater! What-ta you know about that, Bert? Gee, Bert, I’m awful glad you come! I’d ’a’ bust not havin’ somebody to talk to.”
Bert was silent. He still held Freddy in his arms. His heart reeled at the thought of what he must tell the child. He cleared his throat, opened his mouth to speak, but the words would not come.
Freddy chattered on, loosing the flood gates of his accumulated loneliness. He told how Florette had bidden him “learn to be a li’l’ gem’mum,” and how he really tried; but how silly were the rules that governed a gentlemanly existence; how the other li’l’ gem’mum laughed at him, and talked of things he had never heard of, and never heard of the things he talked of, until at last he had ceased trying to be one of them.
“You tell Florette I gotta leave this place,” he concluded firmly. “Bert, now you tell Florette. Will you, Bert? Huh?”
“Freddy — I — Freddy, lissen now. I got somethin’ to tell you.”
“I — I come on to tell you, Freddy. Tha’s why I come out to tell you, see?”
“Well, spit it out,” Freddy laughed.
“Whassa matter, Bert? What’s eatin’ you?”
“I — I Say, Freddy, lissen — lissen now, Freddy. I — ”
“Florette! She ain’t sick? Bert, is Florette sick?”
“No! No, I — ”
“You tell me, Bert! If it’s bad news about Florette — ”
His voice died out. His face grew white. Bert could not meet his eyes.
“No, no, now, Freddy,” Bert mumbled, turning away his head. “You got me all wrong. It — it’s good news, sonny.”
Like a flash Freddy’s face cleared.
“What about, Bert? Good news about what?”
“Why — ah — why, the ac’s goin’ big, like I tole you. An’ — an’ say, boy, out at one place — out at K.C., it — why, it stopped the show!”
“Stopped the show!” breathed Freddy in awe. “Oh, Bert, we never done that before!”
“An’ so — so she — ah, Florette — y’see, kid, account of the ac’ goin’ so big, why, she — has to — go away — for a little while.”
“Go away, Bert! Where?”
“To — to — Englund, an’ — Australia.”
“To Englund, an’ Australia?”
“Yeah, they booked her up ’count o’ the ac’ goin’ so great, see?”
“Yeah. An’ lissen. She’s booked for fifty-two weeks solid!”
“Fifty-two weeks! Oh, Bert, that ain’t never happened to us before!”
“I know. It’s — great!”
Bert blew out his breath loudly, mopped his forehead. He could look at Freddy now, and he saw a face all aglow with love and pride.
“When’s she comin’ to get me, Bert?” the child asked confidently.
“Why — why, Freddy — now — you — ”
Bert could only flounder, and look dismayed.
“She ain’t goin’ off an’ leave me!” wailed the child.
“Now lissen! Say, wait a minute! Lissen!”
“But, Bert! Bert! She — ”
“Say, don’t you wanna help Florette, now she’s got this gran’ bookin’ an’ all?”
“Sure I do, Bert. I wanna he’p her with her quick changes, like I useter.”
“You he’p her! Say, how would that look in all them swell places she’s goin’ to? W’y, she’ll have a maid!”
“Like the headliners, Bert?”
“A coon, Bert?”
“Sure! Like a li’l’ musical com’dy star.”
“But, Bert, w’y can’t I go, too?”
“Aw, now, say — w’y — w’y, you’re too big!”
“What-ta y’ mean, Bert?”
“W’y, kid, you talk’s if you never bin in the p’fession. How ole does Miss Le Fay look? Nineteen, tha’s all. But with a great big boy like you taggin’ on — W’y, say, you’d queer her with them English managers right off. You don’ wanna do that now, Freddy?”
“No, but I — ”
“I knew you’d take it sensible. You always bin a lot of help to Florette.”
“Did she tell you, Bert?”
“A’right. I’ll stay. When — when’s she comin’ to tell me goo’by?”
“Why — why — look-a-here. Brace up, ole man. She had to leave a’ready.”
“Say, you don’ think bookin’ like that can wait, do you? It was take it or leave it — quick. You didn’t wan’ her to throw away a chancet like that, huh, Freddy? Huh?”
Freddy’s head sank on his chest. His hands fell limp. “A’ right,” he murmured without looking up.
The big man bent over the child clumsily and tried to raise his quivering chin.
“Aw, now, Freddy,” he coaxed, “wanna come out with me an’ — an’ have a soda?”
Freddy shook his head.
“Buy ya some candy too. Choc’late drops! An’ how about one o’ them li’l’ airyplane toys I seen in the window down the street? Huh? Or some marbles? Huh? Freddy, le’s go buy out this here dinky li’l’ ole town. What-ta ya say, huh? Le’s paint this li’l’ ole town red! What-ta ya say, sport?”
Freddy managed a feeble smile.
“How come you so flush, Brudder Johnsing?” he asked in what he considered an imitation of darky talk. “Mus’a’ bin rollin’ dem bones!”
“Tha’s a boy!” shouted Bert with a great guffaw. “There’s a comeback for you! Game! Tha’s what I always liked about you, Freddy. You was always game.”
“I wanna be game!” said Freddy, stiffening his lips. “You tell Florette. You write to her I was game. Will ya, Bert?”
A bell rang.
“Aw, I gotta go dress for supper, Bert. They dress up for supper here.”
“A’right, kid. Then I’ll be goin’”
“Goo’-by, Bert. You tell her, Bert.”
“So long, kid.”
“Will ya tell her I was game, Bert?”
“Aw, she’ll know!”
Madame Margarita d’Avala found herself in a situation all the more annoying because it was so absurd. She had promised to sing at the Misses Blair’s School for the benefit of a popular charity, and she had motored out from New York, leaving her maid to do some errands and to follow by train. But it was eight o’clock, and the great Madame d’Avala found herself alone in the prim guest room of the Misses Blair’s School, with her bag and dressing case, to be sure, but with no one to help her into the complicated draperies of her gown. There was no bell. She could not very well run down the corridor, half nude, shouting for help, especially as she had no idea of where the Misses Blair kept either themselves or their servants. The Misses Blair had been so fatiguingly polite on her arrival. Perhaps she had been a little abrupt in refusing their many offers of service and saying that she wanted to rest quite alone. Now, of course, they were afraid to come near her. And, besides, they would think that her maid was with her by this time. They had given orders to have Madame d’Avala’s maid shown up to her as soon as she arrived, and of course their maid would be too stupid to know that Madame d’Avala’s maid had never come.
Margarita d’Avala bit her lips and paced the floor, looked out of the window, opened the door, but there was no one in sight. Well, no help for it. She must try to get into the gown alone. She stepped into it and became entangled in the lace; stepped out again, shook the dress angrily and pushed it on over her head, giving a little impatient scream as she rumpled her hair. Then she reached up and back, straining her arms to push the top snap of the corsage into place. But with the quiet glee of inanimate things the snap immediately snapped out again. Flushing, Madame d’Avala repeated her performance, and the snap repeated its. Madame d’Avala stamped both feet and gave a little gasp of rage. She attacked the belt with no better luck. Chiffon and lace became entangled in hooks, snaps flew out as fast as she could push them in. Her arms ached and the dress assumed strange humpy outlines as she fastened it up all wrong.
She would like to rip the cursed thing from her shoulders and tear it into a million pieces! She felt hysteria sweeping over her. She knew that she was going to have one of her famous fits of temper in a minute.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Madame d’Avala screamed aloud, stamping her feet up and down as fast as they could go. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Damn! Damn! Damn!”
She did not swear in Italian, because she was not an Italian except by profession. Her name had been Maggie Davis, but that was a secret between herself and her press agent.
“Oh! Damn!” screamed Madame d’Avala again.
“Ain’t it hell?” remarked an interested voice, and Madame d’Avala saw a small pale face staring at her through the door which she had left ajar.
“Come in!” she ordered, and a small thin boy entered, quite unabashed, looking at her with an air of complete understanding.
“Who are you?” asked Madame d’Avala.
“Well, Freddy, run at once and find a maid for me, please. Mine hasn’t come, and I’m frantic, simply frantic. Well, why don’t you go?”
“I’ll hook you up,” said Freddy.
“Sure! I kin do it better’n any maid you’d get in this helluva school.”
“Aw, I heard you sayin’ damn! You’re in the p’fession, huh? Me too.”
His face clouded.
“I mean — I useter be.”
“Oh! And now — you have retired?”
“Yeah — learnin’ to be a gem’mum. Lemme there,” said Freddy, stepping behind Madame d’Avala. “Say, you’ve got it all started wrong.” He attacked the stubborn hooks with light, deft fingers.
“Why, you can really do it!” cried Madame d’Avala.
“Sure! This ain’t nothin’.” Freddy’s fingers flew.
“Careful of that drapery. It’s tricky.”
“Say, drapery’s pie to me. I fastened up lots harder dresses than this.”
“Sure! Florette had swell clo’es. This’n’s swell too. My, ain’t it great to see a classy gown again!”
Madame d’Avala laughed, and Freddy joined her.
“Say, you seen the teachers at this school?” he asked. “You seen ’em?”
Madame d’Avala nodded.
“Nice ladies,” said Freddy in an effort to be fair. “But no class — you know what I mean. Way they slick their hair back, an’ no paint or powder. Gee, Florette wouldn’t wear their clo’es to a dog fight!”
“Nor I,” said Madame d’Avala; “I love dogs.”
“I tole Miss Eva she ought to put peroxide in the rinsin’ water for her hair like Florette useter, but it made her mad. I b’lieve in a woman fixin’ herself up all she can, don’t you?” asked Freddy earnestly.
“Indeed, I do! But tell me, who is Florette?”
So Freddy told her all about his mother, and about the good fortune that had come to her.
“Fifty-two weeks solid! Some ac’ to get that kinda bookin’, huh?” he ended.
“Yes! Oh, yes, indeed!”
“There y’ah now! Look at yourse’f! See if it’s a’right.”
Madame d’Avala turned to the mirror. Her gown fell in serene lovely folds. It seemed incredible that it was the little demon of a few minutes before.
“Perfect! Freddy, you’re a wonder. How can I thank you?”
“Tha’s a’right. You’re welcome.”
He was regarding her with worshipful eyes.
“You’re awful pretty,” he breathed.
“Thank you,” said Madame d’Avala. “Are you coming to my concert?”
“No, they put us to bed!” cried Freddy in disgust. “Puttin’ me to bed at 8:30 every night! What-ta y’ know about that! Jus’ w’en the orchestra would be tunin’ up for the evenin’ p’formance.”
“What a shame! I’d like to have you see my act.”
“I bet it’s great. You got the looks too. Tha’s what it takes in this p’fession. Make a quick change?”
“No, I wear the same dress all through.”
“Oh! Well,” he sighed deeply — “well, it’s been great to see you anyway. Goo’by.”
The great lady bent down to him and kissed his forehead.
“Good-by, Freddy,” she said. “You’ve helped me so much.”
Freddy drew in a long breath.
“M-m,” he sighed, “you know how I come to peek in your door like that?”
“Because you heard me screaming damn?”
“No, before that. Comin’ all the way down the hall I could smell it. Smelled so nice. Don’t none of these ladies use perfume.
“I jus’ knew somebody I’d like was in here soon’s I got that smell.”
“Oh, Freddy, I like you too! But I’ve got to hurry now. Good-by. And thanks so much, dear.”
She started out the door.
“Oh, gee! I can’t go to bed!” Freddy wailed.
“Come along then!” cried Madame d’Avala, impetuously seizing his hand. “I’ll make them let you go to the concert. They must!”
They ran down the hall together hand in hand, Freddy directing the way to the Misses Blair’s study. Miss Eva and Miss Nellie and Mary were there, and they looked at Freddy compassionately. And though Miss Eva said it was most unusual, Miss Nellie agreed to Madame d’Avala’s request.
“For,” said gentle Miss Nellie, drawing Madame d’Avala aside and lowering her voice — “for we are very sorry for Freddy now. His mother — ”
“Oh, yes, she has gone to England.”
“Why, no! She — is dead!”
“Oh, mio povero bambino! And how he adores her!”
“And what will he do then?”
“He can stay on here. But I am afraid he doesn’t like us,” Miss Nellie sighed.
“Has he no one else?”
“No — that is, a stepfather. But his mother put him here to save him from the stepfather’s abuse, and — and all the coarsening influences of stage life, if you understand.”
“Ah, yes, I understand,” said Madame d’Avala. “And yet I think I understand the little one too. He and I — we have the same nature. We cannot breathe in the too-high altitudes. For us there must be dancing in the valley, laughter and roses, perfume and sunshine — always sunshine.”
“Oh — er — yes,” replied Miss Nellie, taken aback by this effusiveness, which she could only explain as being foreign.
“It’s 8:30,” said Miss Eva, looking at her watch.
“Ah, then I must fly,” cried Madame d’Avala.
“Goo’by!” said Freddy wistfully.
“Au revoir,” said Madame d’Avala, and electrified the Misses Blair by adding, “See you after the show, kid.”
“I am very lonely, too,” said Margarita d’Avala after the concert — “lonely and sad.”
“You are?” Freddy cried in amazement. Then, practically, “What about?”
“It’s about a man,” confessed the lady.
“Aw g’wan!” exclaimed Freddy incredulously. “Say,” lowering his voice confidentially, “lemme tell you something! They ain’t a man on earth worth crying for.”
“How did you know?” asked Margarita.
“Flo — Florette used to say so.” Then a cloud passed over his face. “She used to say so,” he added.
There was a moment’s silence, while the lady watched him. Then Freddy’s mobile face cleared, his eyes shone with their old gay confidence.
“Say, I’m tellin’ you!” said Freddy, spreading his feet apart, thrusting his hands in his pockets. “I ain’t got no use for men a-tall! An’ you take my advice — don’t bother over ‘em!”
Margarita laughed. She laughed so hard that Freddy had to join her, and without knowing how, he was by her side, holding onto her hand while they both rocked with merriment. When they could laugh no more he snuggled up to the shoulder that smelled so nice. His face became babyish and wistful. He stroked the satin of the lovely gown with one timid finger, while his blue eyes implored hers.
“Ladies an children is nicest, ain’t they?” he appealed.
Suddenly the great Margarita d’Avala caught him in her arms and drew him to that warm beautiful breast where no child’s head had ever rested.
“Oh, Freddy, Freddy!” she cried. “You are right, and I must have you!”
“You kin, s’long’s Florette’s away,” said Freddy.