Grabbing at my coppers, I hurried out, wondering what I had better do if he addressed me. Before I had time to solve the question I heard him striding at my heels. With a deprecating bow that told me he had favours to solicit, he exclaimed, " Monsieur Panage ! "
" You are mistaken," I said promptly.
" Oh, monsieur, I beg you to hear me," he cried, " I entreat you ! In the theatre you are for ever inaccessible—will you not spare an instant to me here?"
He was so sure of my identity that I realised it would be indiscreet of me to deny it any longer. Since I could not deceive, my only course was to ingratiate him.
" What do you want ? " I asked, fuming.
" Monsieur," he broke out, " I am an actor. I have been acting in the provinces since I was a boy. I have played every kind of part from farce to tragedy. I have talent, but I have no influence, and the stage doors of Paris are shut and barred against me ! No manager will listen to me, because I am too obscure to obtain an introduction to him; no one will believe that I have ability, because I cannot get a chance to prove it. Oh, I know very well what a liberty I have taken in speaking to you, but I want to get on, I want to get on—I implore you to give me a trial! "
He had me in a nice fix. Apparently he was unaware that I was believed to be in Crete, but he would soon learn it by the newspaper in his pocket, and if I snubbed him he would certainly give me away. He could hold me up to ridicule—I should be the laughing-stock of Paris. It was a fine situation for me. I, the director of the Theatre Supreme, was compelled to temporise with this provincial mummer!
I scrutinised him in encouraging silence, as if mentally casting him for a part. I saw hope bounding in him.
" Ah !"Isaidthoughtfully. " Y-e-s. . . . What is your favourite line? "
" Character, monsieur," he panted. " And, of course, I would accept a very small salary, a very small salary indeed".
I did not doubt it. I could picture him strutting and ranting on the boards of a booth for a louis a week, and holding himself lucky when he earned that.
" Walk on a little way with me," I said graciously ; "we can talk as we go along. I should have to see you do something before I could consider you, you know; I must be sure that you are capable. Even the gentleman who plays the servant at the Supreme and hasn't a single word to utter is an experienced comedian. You are not playing anywhere in the neighbourhood? you are not in a travelling theatre about here ? "
" No, monsieur," he sighed, " I am out of an engagement; I am here because this is where I live".
"Rather remote from the dramatic world?" I suggested, smiling; " something of a drawback, is it not? " His simplicity in crediting me with the notion of recruiting the Supreme from a travelling theatre tickled me nearly to death.
" A grave drawback, monsieur," he agreed. " But I am not alone—I have a child, and she is too delicate to thrive in a city".
" A good many delicate children have thriven in Paris," I remarked.
" In thriving households, monsieur—in healthy quarters. Paris is dear, and I am poor—my child would be condemned to a slum. I should see her fade away. Better to be a barnstormer all my life than lose my child. She is all I have left to love".
" There is your art," I said, humbugging him.
" My art? " He gave an hysterical laugh. A nervous, jumpy fellow, without a particle of repose. " Listen, monsieur, listen. I am an actor, and if I could demolish the barrier that keeps me out, I might be a great one; but I confess to you that I would abandon art and cast figures on an office stool, or break flints on a road, and thank God for the exchange, if it would buy my child a home ! I want money. I want to give my child the comforts that other children have. That's my ambition. I have no loftier pose than fatherhood. My prayer is, not applause, and compliments, and notoriety, not the petty pleasure of hearing I have equalled one favourite or eclipsed another; my prayer is—to give things to my child ! I want to buy her nourishing food, and a physician's advice, and the education of a gentlewoman. I want the money to send her to the South when it snows, and to the mountains when it's hot. I want to see her laughing in a garden, like the rich men's children in Paris that you spoke of. I stand and watch them sometimes—when I go there to beg at stage doors till an understrapper kicks me out".
" Well, well, the sort of things you desire are not so expensive," I said suavely. " Some day your salary may provide them all".
"You think it possible, monsieur? Really?" His haggard eyes devoured me.
" You have only to make one success. After that, you will be grossly overpaid, like every other star".
" If I could but do it! " he gasped. " If I could only convince a Paris manager that I have it in me ! Year after year I've hoped, and tried, and failed to get a hearing. You may judge my desperation by my audacity in stopping you in the streets.
What course is open to me—what steps can I take? Even now, when I am pouring out my heart to monsieur Panage himself, how much does it advance me? "
He was not so simple as I had thought.
" Enfin—by the way, what is your name? "
" My name is Paul Manesse, monsieur".
" Well, monsieur, you must surely understand that until I have seen you act I cannot be of any service to you? "
" I could rehearse on approval," he pleaded.
" Moreover," I added hastily, " all my arrangements are made for some time to come. Later on, when an opportunity arises, we shall see what we shall see." I halted. " Write to me during the run of Omphale. I shall not forget our little chat. A propos, I am starting to-morrow for Crete; I see the papers are reporting that I am already there, so you need not mention that you have met me—it is never policy to contradict the Press. Yes, I shall bear your name in mind, I assure you".