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Title: Peggy on the Road - Peggy Lane Theater Stories, #4
Author: Hughes, Virginia
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: _Peggy read with mounting conviction and assurance._]

                       PEGGY LANE THEATER STORIES



                          _Peggy on the Road_


                           By VIRGINIA HUGHES

                      Illustrated by Sergio Leone


                    GROSSET & DUNLAP    _Publishers_
                                NEW YORK

                     © GROSSET & DUNLAP, INC., 1963
                          ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

              MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA



                                CONTENTS


  1 The Break of a Lifetime                                            1
  2 Katherine Nelson                                                  16
  3 The Inner Sanctum                                                 30
  4 “Innocent Laughter”                                               41
  5 Tryouts                                                           52
  6 “Why Don’t You Quit?”                                             66
  7 Peggy Turns Detective                                             76
  8 The Search                                                        86
  9 The One-Eyed Giant                                               103
  10 Tom Agate                                                       114
  11 A Star Comes Back                                               125
  12 Tom’s Tryout                                                    139
  13 The Ordeal                                                      148
  14 The Secret                                                      157
  15 “Curtain Going Up!”                                             170



                           PEGGY ON THE ROAD



                                   I
                       _The Break of a Lifetime_


With a grateful sigh Peggy Lane lowered her aching feet into the
delicious warmth of a dishpan filled with hot water, bath crystals, and
Epsom salts. In other rooms exactly like hers throughout the big
brownstone house near New York’s Gramercy Park, half a dozen hopeful,
equally tired, but determined young girls about Peggy’s age were doing
the same thing.

At the Gramercy Arms, a rooming house for young actresses in the middle
of Manhattan, this was a daily ritual known lightheartedly as the
“cocktail hour.”

Peggy sighed a second time, wiggled her toes in the steamy water, and
flopped back on the studio couch.

“What a life,” she murmured darkly.

As if in answer to her complaint, the lights of New York began coming
on. One by one, they twinkled through her window, throwing a spangle of
diamonds across her dressing-table mirror.

New York had been home for a year now, but the big city never failed to
thrill her—especially at dusk. Without taking her feet from the water,
Peggy turned to one side and gazed at a few faint tinges of red in the
west where the sunset was fighting a losing battle with the fabulous
illumination of the New York skyline.

Propping a meditative chin in her hand, Peggy watched the magic
spectacle of Manhattan change gradually from a bustling city of towering
gray buildings and concrete canyons into the jeweled finery of a million
lights. It was like the shimmering moment in the fairy tale when the
drab little kitchen maid turns into a beautiful princess. Or at least
that was the way Peggy always thought of it.

Once, when she was still new in New York, she had made the mistake of
trying to explain all this to a very serious young man who was a
second-year student at a nearby college. The young man had stared at her
uncomfortably for a moment, then changed the subject. But Peggy wasn’t
disturbed. She was fond of her own version, even though she knew it was
hopelessly romantic.

Well, why not? Half-lying on the bed with her feet stuck into what was
now a lukewarm basin of water, she was convinced that she was right and
he was wrong. She thought of the young man’s earnest face and broke into
a grin. Despite herself she laughed out loud.

The cheerful sound filled the darkening room. Paddling her feet happily
in the water, she threw her head back against the pillow and sighed a
third time.

“What a life!” She breathed ecstatically. Suddenly full of vitality
again, she sat up and leveled a pair of clear hazel eyes over the city,
now throbbing with the muted sounds of early evening traffic. “New
York,” she announced in a grave voice to the open window and empty room,
“you don’t care about me right now. You’ve never even heard of me. But
some day you will. You’ll see!”

It was quite a dramatic speech for her to make, but then Peggy Lane was
very young and very determined to become a great actress.

Outside her window, the city took the news of Peggy’s intended conquest
calmly. Somewhere a lone taxicab gave a derisive toot on its horn as it
squealed to a stop to pick up a fare. Peggy mentally stuck out her
tongue at the driver and settled back to make plans for tomorrow. But
before she could get really comfortable, an enthusiastic spatter of
applause came from the doorway.

“I declare, honey,” drawled a familiar voice, “that’s the prettiest
speech I ever did hear. You always talk to yourself in the dark like
that?”

Light flooded the room, and Peggy saw her friend, Amy Shelby Preston,
framed in the door. Amy, a striking ash blonde and a product of Pine
Hollow, North Carolina, had been pulled to New York by the same magnet
that had drawn Peggy. The two girls had met on their first day in the
city, liked each other on sight, and decided to room together this year.

Peggy struggled to a sitting position and blushed furiously. “I—I was
just going over some lines for a play,” she explained lamely.

Amy flashed her a knowing smile as she went over to a tiny sink hidden
from the rest of the room by a Japanese screen. “What’s the name of the
play?” she asked. “_Stage-Struck?_”

Peggy bunched up a throw pillow, but Amy raised her hands in surrender.
“Don’t shoot,” she pleaded. “You heave that thing at me and I’ll never
get up, I’m that tired.”

Peggy hitched herself to the edge of the studio couch and began to towel
her legs vigorously. “You relax,” she ordered. “I’ll fix everything.”

Amy collapsed wearily on the bed, content to watch Peggy wait on her.
“Well?” Peggy demanded eagerly. Amy had just finished a job filming a
television commercial for the Bob Jordan show. “Did you get to meet Bob
Jordan?”

Amy threw back her head and laughed. “Bob Jordan’s already done the show
in Hollywood. It’s just the commercial they’re doing in New York.”

“But doesn’t he want to see it?” Peggy asked as she poured bath crystals
into Amy’s dishpan.

Amy shook her head. “Not this one. Even if he wanted to, he’d never be
able to find the studio.” Studio space in New York was at a premium, and
as a result, many television commercials were filmed in the most
unlikely places.

Peggy laughed. “Where’d they do it?”

“You won’t believe this,” Amy said wonderingly, “but I don’t know. I
couldn’t find it again for worlds. All I know is that I had to take a
subway for hours and then a bus till I got to the end of the line.
Finally I had to wait for a Transcontinental Broadcasting Company car to
pick me up and take me to something that looked like a converted garage
way out at the end of Brooklyn.”

“I know the place,” Peggy interrupted. “That’s the Greenside Studio. I
did an audition there once. It’s a converted stable.”

“It’s still a stable as far as I’m concerned,” Amy replied. She hugged
her arms closer to her body. “Brrr! Was it ever cold!”

“Get into something warm,” Peggy urged. She looked at Amy critically.
“Why did you wear that thin dress? You know what those television
studios are like.”

“It’s the best dress I own,” Amy said as she rummaged through her
closet. “I wanted to make an impression.”

Peggy shook her head and tossed over a bulky woolen bathrobe. “Here,
take this,” she commanded. “It belongs to my cousin David, but I
borrowed it. And hurry up! I want to hear what happened.”

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, honey,” Amy said as she
struggled out of her dress. “But you just won’t give me a chance.”

Peggy sat down and tucked her legs under her. “All right, go on,” she
said patiently. “I’m listening.”

“Well, first of all,” Amy said, poking a tentative foot into the dishpan
on the floor, “it was only a thirty-second commercial. My, that feels
good. I declare, I’m ten degrees warmer already.” She looked around
vaguely. “Now where was I....”

“You were saying it was only a thirty-second spot.”

“That’s right. With General Refrigerator sponsoring the Bob Jordan show,
I counted on having a couple of lines to say. Something like, ‘Oh, Edna!
I’ve got the most exciting news! General Refrigerators now come in a
whole sunburst of dreamy colors from pastel pink to leafy green!’” Amy
dropped the rapturous look on her face and stared solemnly over at
Peggy. “You know the kind of thing they make you say.”

Peggy nodded wordlessly.

“Anyway,” Amy went on, “soon as I got there, they sent me over to
make-up. I got in the chair, closed my eyes, and waited for them to put
cold cream over my face.”

“Never mind that,” Peggy said, “get on with the rest of it!”

“But that’s the important part!” Amy protested. “That’s when I knew it
was the beginning of the end!”

“Goodness,” Peggy said. “It sounds serious. What happened when you had
your eyes closed?”

“I heard somebody tell me to stick out my arm.”

“What!”

“It’s the living truth, honey. Honestly, I thought they were going to
give me a vaccination or something. But then the make-up girl rubbed
cream on my hand and took the polish off my fingernails. When she was
through, I asked if she wasn’t going to do anything else, and she said
no. She said I was ready to go on camera.”

“But only your arm was made up?”

Amy nodded emphatically. “Up to my elbow.”

“Then what was your part in the commercial?”

“A _hand_!” Amy wailed. She looked as though she were about to burst
into tears. “I played the part of a _hand_ on the Bob Jordan commercial.
All they wanted me to do was open the refrigerator door!” Amy thumped
the couch in frustration. “Here I thought they wanted an actress who
could read lines and all, and all they wanted was a hand! Why, anybody
with five fingers could have done it!” She paused and looked sheepishly
at Peggy. “Oh, Peggy, I’m so ashamed!”

Peggy jumped up and went over to her roommate. “Whatever for?” she
asked. “It was just a job.”

Amy shook her head and blinked. “You don’t understand—Oh, Peggy!”

“Come on, now,” Peggy soothed. “Tell me the whole story.”

Amy sat perfectly still for a moment, trying to fight back the tears.
Suddenly both tears and story came out in a rush. “When I first heard
about getting a part in the commercial”—Amy gulped—“I got all excited. I
wrote home and told Mama to watch me on the Bob Jordan show.”

Suddenly Peggy understood. She knew Pine Hollow, North Carolina, was a
tiny place. Amy’s mother was almost sure to tell everyone about her
daughter’s big television debut. Next week at air time, half the
population would be glued in front of their sets, waiting to see Amy’s
face.

“Everyone will be looking for me,” Amy went on mournfully. “And all
they’re going to see is my—my hand! What am I going to tell them?”

“The truth,” Peggy said simply.

Amy looked up in despair. “Oh, I couldn’t!” she breathed. “Mama would be
the laughingstock of Pine Hollow.” Another thought seemed to strike her.
“Oh, my goodness!” she wailed.

“What’s the matter now?”

“Daddy!” Amy cried, jumping to her feet. “What’s _he_ going to say? You
know Daddy wasn’t too keen on my coming to New York in the first place.”

Peggy smiled, remembering the endless discussions that had gone on in
her own family. “Fathers are funny that way,” she observed.

Amy threw her a trapped look. “You don’t have any idea! He’s always
thought my wanting to be an actress was silly. What’s he going to say
now?”

An idea began working in Peggy’s mind. Grinning mischievously, she
scrambled to her feet and held out her hands. “Don’t tell me,” she
begged. “Let me guess.” Clasping her hands firmly behind her back, Peggy
started to pace back and forth. Her usually cheerful face was lined with
a severe scowl.

Amy burst into laughter at the sight and collapsed back on top of her
bed. “Oh, Peggy! Daddy doesn’t look like that at all. He’s really much
nicer.”

Peggy raised a hand threateningly. “Quiet!” she thundered in her best
imitation of a man’s voice.

Amy subsided obediently. “Yes, sir,” she said meekly.

Peggy cleared her throat and rumbled ahead. “This is disgraceful,” she
intoned. “Here my daughter has spent a year in New York. She’s gone to
dramatic school and she’s been in summer stock. What does she have to
show for it, eh? I ask you.” Peggy gave a fierce tug on an imaginary
mustache. “One year of solid work and the best she can do is to play the
part of a hand on a television commercial!” Peggy stomped down to the
far end of the room. “A hand!” She snorted. “If it’s taken her a year to
get her hand on a television show, how long d’you suppose it’ll take to
get the rest of her on? Eh? I ask you!”

Peggy wanted to continue, but Amy was laughing too hard. “You’re almost
right.” Amy gasped between giggles. “Only he’d never come right out and
say it like that.”

“Then why don’t you do it yourself?” Peggy cried gaily.

“Me?” Amy seemed astonished by the idea.

“Sure,” Peggy said eagerly. “Tell them exactly what happened, but treat
the whole thing as a joke. Get them on your side.” Peggy sat down beside
Amy and spoke seriously. “I really mean it, Amy,” she said. “If you
laugh about it, they will too. And besides,” she added, “they’ll admire
you for your determination.”

Amy looked at her hopefully. “You think so?”

“Of course,” Peggy assured her.

Amy began giggling again.

“Now what?”

“I just thought of something Daddy once said to me. He said the
important thing was to get my foot in the door. Now I can tell him that
maybe I haven’t got my foot in yet, but at least my hand’s there.”

The two girls laughed together. “That’s the spirit!” Peggy chuckled.
“Don’t give up the ship! That’ll be our motto!”

“Rah! Rah! Rah!” Amy cheered, applauding excitedly.

“Sssh!” Peggy cautioned. “We’re making too much noise.”

“You sure are,” came a resonant voice from the door. “When does the
plane leave for Hollywood?”

“Hollywood?” Amy asked blankly, whirling around to stare at the
commanding figure before her.

May Berriman closed the door and advanced into the room. Years ago, May
had been a successful character actress on Broadway, but when she had
left the stage she had taken over the management of the Gramercy Arms.
The girls who stayed at the Gramercy Arms were, for the most part,
struggling young actresses like Peggy and Amy. With her wide knowledge
of the theater and her vast common sense, May was more than just a
landlady to “her girls.” She was almost a second mother to them,
presiding over their hopes and fears, their triumphs and failures, their
good times and their squabbles with an even-handed justice that combined
equal doses of a sharp tongue and a soft heart.

May picked her way through the clutter of the girls’ room and sat down
on Peggy’s bed. Peggy never tired of watching May’s movements. They were
so unconsciously graceful, so sure and poised. They were, Peggy knew,
the result of years of training and hard, disciplined work.

“Of course,” May was saying to Amy, “from the hall you two sounded like
the cheering section at a football game. I couldn’t imagine what had
happened. I was sure it was a Hollywood screen test at the very least.”

“Not yet.” Peggy smiled. “That’s a long way off.”

Amy looked out the window dreamily. “You never can tell,” she said
hopefully. “Why, the phone could ring any minute!” She turned to May for
support. “Isn’t that true?” she demanded. “A big producer can see you
one day and the next day you’re out in Hollywood. It happens all the
time.”

“Only in your imagination, dear,” May said dryly. “I’d advise you not to
hold your breath until that phone call comes. Oh, by the way,” she
added, turning to Peggy, “somebody tried to get you about an hour ago.”

Peggy straightened up. “Was there a message?” she asked.

May shook her head. “No message, but she left a name.”

“Oh. A she?”

An amused smile softened May’s face. “I hope it’s not too much of a
shock. It was a girl named Pam Mundy. She said she knew you from summer
stock.”

“Pam!” Peggy cried excitedly. “I had no idea she was in New York. What
fun! Is she going to call back?”

“She said she’d get in touch with you this evening. Is she an actress?”

“Not really,” Peggy said. “She’s more interested in the production end.
She saw some of our shows up at Lake Kenabeek last summer, and often
discussed the problems with Richard Wallace, our producer.”

“A lady producer!” Amy exclaimed in surprise. “I thought all producers
were men.”

“Most of them are,” May said. “But there’s no law against a girl trying
it.”

“Maybe she’s doing a show,” Amy cried suddenly, “and she’s got a part in
it for you.”

Before Peggy could answer, the buzzer over their door let out a squawk.
“Telephone!” Amy breathed, hurling herself at the door. “Who’s it for?”
she yelled down the hall. Each floor of the Gramercy Arms was serviced
by a single telephone shared by all the girls on the floor.

“For Peggy!” came the answer. “It’s a man!”

“Well, at least we know it isn’t Pam Mundy,” Peggy said, as she drew on
her bathrobe.

“It’s probably Randy,” Amy said.

Peggy nodded and disappeared into the corridor. Randy was Randolph Clark
Brewster. Peggy had met him when she first came to New York and had been
seeing him ever since. In the early days he had more or less taken her
under his wing and had guided her first faltering steps in that actor’s
nightmare known as “the rounds.”

Doing the rounds meant mapping out a systematic campaign of personally
seeing every producer, actor’s agent, and casting director in town. It
was tedious, foot-wearying work, but it was necessary. Peggy learned
soon enough that you couldn’t simply send a picture and a note, and then
sit back, and expect the calls to come in. You had to keep knocking on
doors, reminding people of your existence, hoping that sooner or later
somebody would remember you and say, “Why don’t we try that girl who was
in here this morning? She might be right for the part.”

She still remembered the morning she had made her first rounds with
Randy. They had agreed to meet outside the Gramercy Arms at
eight-thirty. Right on the dot, she saw Randy’s tall, lanky figure swing
along the sidewalk, move toward her, and stop in undisguised dismay.

In her eagerness to make a good impression, Peggy had put on a dress
that was far too sophisticated for her. She had plastered make-up all
over her face, complete with mascara, and covered her eyelids with a
heavy film of dark green, which she fancied went well with her coloring
and dark chestnut hair.

Randy took one look and shook his head. “No, Peggy. That won’t do at
all,” he had said gently.

“Why not?” Peggy had replied. “You said the important thing was for them
to notice me.”

Randy tried to cover up a grin by rubbing a hand over his jaw. “They’ll
notice you all right,” he said. “In fact, they’ll never forget you.” He
took her hand and led her up the steep steps of the brownstone house.
“Let’s go inside and sit down awhile,” he suggested.

Peggy followed him obediently to the tiny sitting room off the entrance
hall. She listened carefully as Randy told her how important it was to
let her fresh young beauty speak for itself. He explained that she was
not yet ready to play sophisticated, older women, and that it was
useless to try. He got her to go upstairs, rub off the make-up, and
change into a simpler dress. At first Peggy had been furious, but later
she learned that he was right.

Now Peggy hurried eagerly down the corridor. It would be good to talk to
Randy again. She picked up the telephone. “Hello.”

A man’s voice came from the other end. It wasn’t Randy. “Hello. Is this
Miss Peggy Lane?”

“Speaking.”

“My name is Peter Grey. I’m with the Oscar Stalkey office. Miss Pam
Mundy suggested I give you a ring.”

Peggy caught her breath. Oscar Stalkey was one of the biggest producers
in New York. His new play, _Innocent Laughter_, had opened to rave
reviews a few weeks earlier. Already it was impossible to get tickets.
Everyone in New York wanted to see it.

“Yes?” Peggy answered in a shaking voice.

“Well, it’s quite simple, really.” The voice went on in a matter-of-fact
tone. “We’re getting ready to cast the road companies of _Innocent
Laughter_, and Miss Mundy suggested you for a general understudy.
There’d also be a small speaking part. It’s a national tour and you’d be
expected to sign for a minimum of six months. Will you be available?”

For a moment Peggy couldn’t speak. She just sat and stared helplessly at
the telephone two inches from her nose.

“Hello, hello?” came the voice from the other end. “Are you still
there?”

“Yes,” Peggy said in a voice she didn’t recognize.

“We’re trying out a number of people tomorrow. Can you be at the Stalkey
office at ten?”

“At ten,” Peggy repeated mechanically.

“Yes. Then we can expect you?”

“Oh, yes,” Peggy said. “I’ll—I’ll be there.”

“Thanks. Good-by.”

The phone went dead in her hand. It took Peggy several seconds to lift
the receiver back into its cradle.

“_Innocent Laughter!_” she murmured to herself. “Me, in _Innocent
Laughter_!” Suddenly she couldn’t stand it another minute. She raced
back to her room at the far end of the hall, laughing as she ran. If she
could land the part, it was the break of a lifetime!



                                   II
                            Katherine Nelson


It took a touch of May’s common sense to bring Peggy back to reality.
“You don’t have the part yet,” she cautioned. “So don’t count on it.”

“Oh, but, May,” Amy protested, “why else would they call her? I’m sure
Peggy’s got it.”

“Did he come right out and make you an offer?” May asked.

“No,” Peggy admitted. “He said they were interviewing a number of girls
tomorrow. That’s all.”

“Well, then,” May said. “You see?”

“I don’t care,” Amy declared stoutly. “This it still the biggest break
either one of us has had in a year.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” May said. “I’m just trying to get Peggy to
realize what she’s up against. Nobody’s going to hand her that part on a
silver platter. She’s got to go in there tomorrow and earn it.”

Peggy moved nervously to the window and pulled back the curtain. “If
only I knew a little more about the play,” she murmured. “I don’t even
know what kind of a part I’m supposed to try out for.” She walked over
to her bed and sat down despairingly. “I should have asked when I had
the chance, but I guess I was too excited. I didn’t even think!”

“Now, now,” May said soothingly. “Don’t work yourself up into a fit. How
much do you know about _Innocent Laughter_?”

“Nothing,” Peggy said dispiritedly. “Absolutely nothing except that it’s
the biggest hit of the season.”

“What time is it?” Amy cried suddenly. “Maybe we could see it tonight!”

“Not a chance,” May said emphatically. “You wouldn’t be able to get
tickets.”

“Standing room?” Amy suggested hopefully.

May looked at her watch and shook her head. “Too late.”

“Oh dear!” Peggy started to get up, but May pushed her firmly back down
on the studio couch.

“You sit down, young lady,” she ordered. “There’s no point in worrying
about something you can’t help. Besides, I think I can give you some
idea of the play.”

“You can?” Peggy cried eagerly. “Oh, May, you’re an angel!”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” May said. “Just sit back and listen.”
Peggy and Amy settled down obediently and waited.

“First of all,” May began, “_Innocent Laughter_ has only four parts for
women.” She ticked them off one by one. “There’s the lead, a brilliantly
successful career woman living in New York, who decides one day to try
to recapture her youth. Then there’s a wonderful part—the woman’s
mother, a shrewd old gal who’s made a fortune in real estate out West,
and who hasn’t seen her daughter in years. The third big part is the
career woman’s daughter. She’s a young girl who’s been sent to finishing
school in Europe, and hasn’t seen _her_ mother in years, except for
brief vacations.” May looked around inquiringly. “All clear so far?”

“You mean there are three generations—the grandmother, the mother, and
the daughter?” Amy asked.

May nodded. “You’ve got the picture.”

“What happened to all the men?” Peggy asked.

“Ah, now we’re getting to it,” May said. “The grandfather—that’s the old
gal’s husband—disappeared years ago. He left home because he said he
couldn’t stand his wife’s domineering ways. The mother’s husband is
dead, and the daughter, of course, doesn’t have any husband yet.”

“How about the story?” Amy demanded. “What’s that all about?”

“The situation is simple,” May explained. “The three generations meet in
New York. The grandmother wants a last fling. She’s after good times and
plenty of them. The mother, as I’ve said, is trying to find romance
again.”

“And the young daughter?” Amy asked.

May shrugged. “The daughter isn’t sure what she wants. She’s in a sort
of experimental mood about life. Very young, very sweet, and full of
vitality.”

“What happens after they all get together?” Amy asked.

“Oh, they make a mess of everything,” May said. “Things go from bad to
worse until suddenly, out of the blue, who should turn up but the
grandfather!”

“The one who disappeared years ago!” Amy said.

“Right,” said May.

“What’s he been doing all those years?”

“Oh, this and that,” May replied airily. “He’s been knocking around the
world a good deal and making a lot of money. Anyway, he walks in on the
three women and takes over. He straightens out the mother’s life, saves
the young daughter from marrying a dull man, and makes his wife fall in
love with him all over again.”

“It sounds like a great part,” Peggy remarked.

“Doesn’t it?” May agreed. “Anyway, that’s about all there is to it. Not
a second _Hamlet_, I’ll admit, but a good, solid comedy.”

“Wait a minute,” Amy interrupted. “You’ve only mentioned three women.
Who’s the fourth?”

“A tiny part,” May said. “A schoolgirl friend of the young daughter. She
appears in one scene in the first act.”

“And that’s Peggy?” Amy asked.

May nodded. “Probably. That and understudying the daughter.”

Amy sighed. “Oh my,” she said. “Wouldn’t you just love to play the
daughter?”

“Stop dreaming,” May counseled. “Oscar Stalkey couldn’t afford to take a
chance with an unknown in a part like that.” May turned and walked over
to Peggy. “Now look, Peggy,” she said in a quiet, reassuring voice,
“when you walk into that office tomorrow, don’t try to pretend you’re an
experienced actress. Oscar Stalkey’s been around a long time and he’d be
able to see right through your pose.”

The older woman sat down and folded her hand over Peggy’s. “Do you
remember that time when Randy told you to be yourself and not try to act
as if you were ten years older?”

Peggy smiled and nodded.

“It was the best advice you could get,” May went on. “If you follow it
tomorrow, the rest will take care of itself. You’re a good actress,
Peggy. You have a lot of promise. He’ll be able to see that.” May got up
slowly and drifted over to the window. “I used to know Oscar Stalkey
pretty well,” she said. “He’s a strange mixture of a hard-boiled
Broadway producer and a sentimental little boy. He’s been in show
business over thirty years, and he still thinks the theater is the most
wonderful thing in the world.”

“So do I!” Peggy breathed.

May turned and smiled. “Good. Then you two ought to get along
beautifully. Now,” she said, moving to the door in a brisk, businesslike
manner, “have you had dinner yet?”

“Oh, no, May!” Peggy pleaded. “I’m too excited. I couldn’t eat a bite.”

May’s smile vanished. She pointed to the door commandingly. “Out you
go,” she said. “We can’t have you meeting Oscar Stalkey looking pale and
haggard. The program for the rest of the evening includes a good dinner,
a long hot bath, and early to bed.” May paused and advanced a step
toward Peggy. “And try not to worry too much.”

Peggy smiled and nodded. “All right,” she said. “I’ll try.”

“Good. When you push open the door of Oscar Stalkey’s office tomorrow, I
want you to look like a million dollars—rested and confident you’re
going to get the part.”


At precisely ten o’clock the following morning, Peggy Lane stood before
the plain frosted-glass door of Oscar Stalkey’s office, feeling rested,
alert—but not at all sure of herself. In fact, what she felt was dread.
It was exactly like the time when she was seven years old, and had to
appear in the school Christmas pageant as one of the angels who led the
shepherds to the manger. She still remembered her two lines: “This is
the place. See how the roof is bathed by the light of yonder star.”
Chattering with the cold, her throat all lumpy with fear, and lonelier
than she had ever been in her life, she had waited in the wings for the
words that would bring her out on the stage. She had been sure she would
forget everything. Now she remembered what it had been like when at last
she had stepped into the brilliant warmth of the stage, sensing the
audience out front and the magic of the set behind her. She had read her
lines beautifully, and only regretted that she didn’t have more of them.
At that moment, Peggy had decided to become an actress. That was a long
time ago. Smiling at the memory, she took a final breath and pushed
against the door.

She stopped on the threshold in numbed surprise.

Dozens of eyes swiveled around at her entrance. On all sides, the tiny
reception room was lined with young girls. There were tall, beautiful
girls with sleek hairdos and shiny patent leather hatboxes by their
sides. There were heavily made up girls whose eyes glittered coldly as
they surveyed the newcomer. There were a few girls she recognized.
Nobody was happy to see her.

Peggy knew that this was the fierce competition of the theater. It was
part of the price you had to pay if you wanted to come to New York.
Tilting her chin defiantly, Peggy closed the door and went over to a
peroxide blonde who sat listlessly behind a desk. The blonde reached out
a hand for a sheet of paper.

“Name?” she inquired in a bored voice. “Mr. Stalkey’s interviewing by
appointment only.”

“Lane,” Peggy replied in a clear voice. “Peggy Lane.”

The blonde ran a bright red fingernail down a list of names and stopped
about halfway. “Who sentcha?” she drawled with quick suspicion.

Peggy frowned. “I don’t ... what do you mean?” she stammered.

The blonde pursed her mouth in disapproval. “What I’m trying to find
out, dearie,” she said in a voice edged with the patient annoyance of
someone talking to a retarded child, “is how come you’re here. Who made
the appointment for you?”

Light dawned. “Oh! Mr. Grey. Mr. Peter Grey.”

The answer seemed to satisfy. “Okay.” The receptionist dismissed Peggy
with a wave. “Find a seat.” She returned to the magazine she had been
reading.

Still feeling ill at ease, Peggy backed away from the desk and looked
around for a place to sit down. The chairs along one wall were all
filled. Opposite them there was a bench with just enough room if one of
the girls would move over. Nobody budged an inch. The silence was
oppressive.

Suddenly making up her mind she was not going to stand around awkwardly,
Peggy moved over to the bench and planted herself in front of the small
space.

“Excuse me,” she said in her sweetest voice, “would you mind moving
over?”

The girl who filled the spot Peggy wanted drew herself up in an
exaggerated shrug and slowly opened a space.

“Thank you,” Peggy said as she sat down. Her neighbor didn’t even bother
to glance in her direction.

The silence continued.

Suddenly from behind the closed door that led into what Peggy assumed
was Stalkey’s private office, she could hear voices. There was a
high-pitched burst, then a deeper rumbling answer. A woman and a man
arguing, Peggy thought. A third voice cut in, a resonant baritone. Two
men and a woman.

There was a scream from the other room, followed by a crash, and the
woman’s voice shouting, “No! No! No!”

“None of that now,” thundered the first man’s voice. “I’m sick and tired
of your childish temper tantrums.”

“Temper tantrums!” came a screech. “How else can I act when you simply
refuse to listen to reason?”

“Oh, come off it, Katherine!” the second man said. “Act your age.”

There was a stunned silence during which Peggy had a chance to look
around. Every girl in the reception room had her eyes glued to the door.
An air of excited expectancy hung over the office. Even the blond
receptionist had put aside her magazine in favor of the real-life drama
going on in the next room.

Peggy heard the door bang open, and turning, saw before her one of the
great figures of the American stage. Katherine Nelson, a portrait of
elegance, stood framed in the doorway.

[Illustration: _Katherine Nelson had been world famous for many years._]

Katherine Nelson. Everyone knew of Katherine Nelson. She had been
world-famous for many years, at the very top of her profession. But
suddenly, about five years ago—nobody knew why—she had begun to slip.
For some reason, she chose her plays badly, and where once she had known
nothing but success, she had had to face the humiliation of failure. It
had been a long time since she had been on a stage in New York, or
anywhere else for that matter. She still had her great name, of course.
Katherine Nelson would always be a magnet, but there was no denying that
as a star she was fading. Other, younger actresses were moving up to
take the roles that would automatically have been hers a few years ago.

It was well known that Katherine Nelson did not wear her years
gracefully. References to age sent her into towering rages that were the
delight of all gossip columnists, and the despair of those who had to
work with her. She stood now, not ten feet from Peggy, her magnificent
eyes flashing daggers. At first, Peggy felt a thrill at being so near a
famous person, but surprisingly that passed almost at once. Instead of
staring at her face, Peggy caught herself looking at Katherine Nelson’s
hands as they gripped the door.

They were like claws, Peggy thought. They were the hands of an old
woman. With a start, Peggy realized that despite her youthful figure and
carefully made-up face, Katherine Nelson could no longer play romantic
parts.

All this passed through Peggy’s mind in a flash, before her train of
thought was evaporated by a throaty voice that rolled out in accents of
anger.

“You’ll remember whom you’re talking to, Oscar Stalkey! There’s only one
Katherine Nelson in the theater, and if you’re not aware of it, there
are hundreds and thousands of people who are. People who are prepared to
stand in line all night, if necessary, to get tickets to my plays. When
you’ve thought _that_ over and are willing to discuss matters more
intelligently, you may call me!”

Shrugging into a magnificent silk-and-fur coat, Katherine Nelson swept
down between the two lines of awed young girls, exactly as if she were
making a grand exit from a stage. As a matter of fact, this was just
what she _was_ doing. It would have been effective, too, except for one
thing. Katherine Nelson had a toy poodle on a leash, and the little dog
took a sudden playful liking to Peggy.

As his mistress passed Peggy, the tiny poodle wagged his tail and
trotted over. The unexpected shift in course forced Katherine Nelson to
stop. Frowning with annoyance, she yanked at the dog’s leash. But
instead of following obediently, the poodle gave a couple of shrill yips
and scrambled up on Peggy’s lap.

Blushing with embarrassment, Peggy tried to get up and dislodge the
animal. “Down, boy,” Peggy commanded, making a wild grab for her purse
which was slipping to the floor.

The next instant, leash, purse, Peggy, and the poodle were hopelessly
entangled. Peggy sensed a commanding figure hovering nearby. Katherine
Nelson was staring down at her in blazing fury.

Peggy attempted an apologetic laugh as she tried desperately to
straighten out the mess at her feet. Finally she got everything sorted
out and handed over the friendly poodle.

“I’m sorry,” Peggy said with a smile, offering the dog. “We sort of got
mixed up.”

Katherine Nelson jerked the poodle out of Peggy’s hands rudely. “Clumsy
idiot!” she muttered. Spots of dull red showed in her face.

Peggy felt herself coloring too, but for a different reason. “I really
didn’t—” she stammered. “I’m awfully—”

“Will you get out of my way?” Katherine Nelson blazed.

Peggy backed away hastily, catching her heel against the side of the
bench as she moved. She flailed the air clumsily to keep from falling,
then sat down heavily. Her purse slipped to the floor again.

Katherine Nelson threw her a disdainful look, swept on through the
reception room, and out the door.

Peggy had never been so embarrassed in her life. She knew that every
girl in the room was laughing at her predicament. She only hoped that
Oscar Stalkey hadn’t noticed. But when she stole a quick, shy glance at
the door, she saw a short, bald man staring at her owlishly through
heavy, horn-rimmed glasses. A cold cigar was clenched between his teeth.
Peggy recognized him at once from his pictures. It was Oscar Stalkey.
With a sinking heart, she realized numbly that she was ruined before she
even started. She had made a perfect fool of herself, and there wasn’t
any point in staying.

Staring straight ahead, Peggy got to her feet and headed for the door.
The walk seemed endless. She was about halfway there when a deep voice
growled out.

“Hey! Where are you going?”

Peggy stopped and turned slowly, her eyes widening in surprise.

Oscar Stalkey was still standing in the doorway, but now he was pointing
a finger in her direction. “Come in here,” he said. “I want to talk to
you.”

There were gasps of surprise from the other girls. Peggy swallowed once
and pointed to herself. “Me?” she asked in a voice that cracked.

“Well, who’d you think I meant?” came the gruff answer. “Come in. I
haven’t got all day.” He stepped aside and motioned her to hurry.

Still unable to believe what was happening, Peggy followed Oscar Stalkey
blindly into his office.



                                  III
                           The Inner Sanctum


Four people were grouped in the office. There was Stalkey himself,
heavy-set and dynamic, hovering impatiently by the door. Behind him in a
corner lounged a rather disheveled man in his mid-forties who looked
vaguely familiar. A young man in his twenties, with a collegiate crew
cut, stood by the window. Beside him, behind the largest desk Peggy had
ever seen, sat Pam Mundy—the girl she had met during the summer.

Pam seemed even more surprised than Peggy. Her eyebrows shot up in twin
crescents of astonishment at the sight of her friend coming through the
door. But she quickly regained her composure and threw Peggy a
reassuring smile and wink.

Anyone seeing Pam perched behind the massive desk would have thought she
was the most important person in the room. Actually, she was Oscar
Stalkey’s secretary, using his desk because the veteran producer seldom
sat in a chair if he could avoid it. All his business was conducted on
the run, in a restless course of constant pacing that was a little hard
to get accustomed to. The only reason he tolerated the desk at all was
because his wife had given it to him as a surprise years ago, and he
could never bring himself to get rid of it. But at the time, Peggy
didn’t know this. She advanced into the room and looked around
uncertainly.

The untidy man in the corner unwound his long legs from one side of his
lounge chair, and stared at Peggy with undisguised interest. The young
man by the window straightened up and greeted her with a pleasant smile.

“Well, sit down, sit down,” came the gravelly voice of Stalkey. “What’s
your name?”

“Peggy Lane.” Peggy sat down on the edge of a chair near the desk.

“Had much experience?” Stalkey was prowling along a row of bookcases
that lined the far wall of his office.

There was a pause. Finally Peggy decided to be straightforward. “No, Mr.
Stalkey,” she replied with a smile. “I’m afraid not much. A year of
dramatic school, a season of summer stock, a good off-Broadway role, and
a few walk-on parts.”

“That’s all?”

Peggy nodded. The rumpled man in the corner looked at her with surprise.
Stalkey merely grunted. “How’d you get on our list for an appointment?”

Peggy glanced over at Pam. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I got a phone call
last night from a Mr. Grey.”

The young man at the window nodded. “I’m Peter Grey,” he announced. “I
got in touch with her, Oscar.”

“Why?”

“Pam Mundy suggested it.”

All attention was now focused on the girl behind the desk. Pam took the
stares in stride. “I saw Peggy in stock last summer,” she explained.
“I’ve seen what she can do, and I thought she might be right for the
understudy.”

Oscar Stalkey grunted a second time and padded over to the figure in the
chair. “What do you think, Craig?” he asked suddenly.

Craig Claiborne! Peggy finally recognized him. He was the director of
_Innocent Laughter_ and would probably perform a similar job for the
road company productions.

Claiborne shrugged noncommittally. “You were the one who asked her to
come in,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Well, at least she’s honest,” Stalkey grumbled as he shuffled off to
continue his endless pacing. He stopped and glared accusingly at Peggy.
“You’ve no idea,” he said mournfully, “how many girls try to tell me
they’ve had years of experience.” He threw up his hands in exasperation.
“They have the nerve—some of them—to stand up and tell me they’ve been
acting for twenty years when I know perfectly well they can’t be more
than eighteen years old. Oh, well—” He broke off abruptly and moved over
to a position in front of Peggy. “The reason I asked you to step in
here,” he said, “was because you looked like the most human person out
there.” He gestured to the reception room in disgust. “That’s the
biggest collection of artificial people I’ve seen in months. Where do
the casting agents dig them up?” He sighed and went on. “There was
something about your embarrassment when you had that run-in with
Katherine—”

Craig Claiborne interrupted with a chuckle. “Don’t tell me she tangled
with Katherine the Great?” he asked.

“Tangled is the word,” Stalkey said happily. “Peggy here ruined
Katherine’s exit.”

Claiborne shook his head in mock dismay. “Oh, oh.”

“That’s right.” Stalkey nodded. He turned back to Peggy. “Tell me
frankly. You didn’t know what to do when that happened, now did you?”

Peggy smiled. “No, I didn’t. I was a little frightened and terribly
embarrassed.”

“And a little awed, too?” Stalkey asked, almost eagerly.

“Yes,” Peggy admitted. “I guess I was.”

The producer rubbed his hands together with pleasure. “And that,” he
said exuberantly, “is exactly the quality we want for the young
schoolgirl friend in _Innocent Laughter_. The only question is, are you
good enough to play the daughter—even as an understudy?” Stalkey looked
at Peggy searchingly, almost as if a careful examination of her face
could reveal the extent of her talent.

It was an impossible question to answer. Peggy was saved from trying by
a telephone that jangled suddenly.

Pam swooped down on it. “Yes?” she said crisply. “Who’s calling?” She
listened for a moment, then covered the mouthpiece with one hand. “It’s
Max Borden from Talent Incorporated,” she said. “Do you want to speak to
him?”

Stalkey nodded wordlessly, and lunged for the phone. “Hello,” he rasped,
“Max?” He began to move agitatedly back and forth across the room,
cradling the telephone in his left hand. “Did you get him?” he asked
eagerly.

There was a pause, and a look of frustration crossed Stalkey’s face.
“Well, can’t he get out of his contract?” he said. “Yeah, well, I’m
sorry too.” Another pause. Stalkey used it to shift his cigar over to
the other side of his mouth. “Yeah,” he grunted. “Yeah, I know. No, I
don’t have the faintest idea. Think about it and call me back. If we get
any brain waves here at our end we’ll let you know. G’by.” He hung up
the receiver and stared moodily at the telephone as if it had done him
some personal injury.

“Charlie Forsythe can’t play the part,” he announced. “He’s tied up with
a movie contract.”

Charles Forsythe, Peggy knew, was one of the outstanding character
actors in America. Stalkey must have been trying to get him for the role
of the grandfather in _Innocent Laughter_. For the first time, she
realized it wasn’t always too easy to cast a play.

Oscar Stalkey apparently had forgotten Peggy’s existence. “Any ideas?”
he rapped out. “We’ve got to settle this in the next few days.”

“What about Eddie Jarmin?” Craig Claiborne suggested. “I remember he did
something similar in _Bed of Roses_ a couple of years back.”

“Yeah,” Stalkey said unenthusiastically. “He sure did and was he
terrible! No, thanks!”

“There’s always James Donohue,” Claiborne said.

“Yes, there is,” Stalkey admitted. “When he remembers to show up for
rehearsal.” He trotted over to the other side of the room in a burst of
agitation.

“Why is it,” he said to no one in particular, “that good, dependable
character actors are so hard to come by? I can reach out and put my hand
on half a hundred leading men and a thousand juveniles. But a character
actor!” He shook his head helplessly. “Oh, well....”

Over by the window Peter Grey stirred restlessly. “You know,” he said
with an almost apologetic laugh, “you may think I’m crazy, but I’ve got
an idea.”

“Let’s have it,” Stalkey shot back.

Peter advanced toward the center of the room, speaking with mounting
excitement. “What we want,” he said, “is a man with a sure sense of
comedy. Somebody with a breezy style and a good ear for laugh lines. But
even more than that, he’s got to be able to move the audience. There’s
that big scene with the daughter, for instance. That’s got to be done
beautifully, with a great deal of tenderness.”

Stalkey snapped his fingers impatiently. “Sure, sure,” he said. “We know
all that. But I’ll settle for someone who can get us the laughs.”

“Why not get somebody who can do both?”

Stalkey snorted. “Stop dreaming,” he said. “They don’t make them like
that any more.”

“There’s one person who just might be able to do it,” Peter said slowly.
“If we can get him.”

“Who?”

Peter grinned. “This is the crazy part,” he said. He paused as the
others waited expectantly. “Tom Agate,” he finally blurted out.

“Tom Agate!” Craig Claiborne said in a puzzled voice. “Isn’t he dead?”

Peter scratched the back of his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “The
last I heard he was still living here.”

“Tom Agate,” Oscar Stalkey murmured slowly. “Tom Agate.” He spoke the
name a second time as if relishing the sound, then looked up at Peter
sharply. “How do you know about Tom Agate?” he demanded. “I thought only
us old-timers remembered him.”

Peter laughed. “Oh, I used to be crazy about him. My father took me to
see Tom Agate every time he played a USO show anywhere near where my
father was stationed during World War II.”

“Who,” Pam asked almost shyly, “is Tom Agate?”

Oscar Stalkey waved a hand in Pam’s direction. “You see?” he demanded
with a wry smile. “There’s fame for you, Tom Agate,” he said, turning to
Pam, “was just about the most famous song-and-dance man in vaudeville.
You’ve heard stories about the good old days in the theater—about the
grand troupers who always went on to give a performance no matter how
they were feeling—”

Peter put his hand over his heart melodramatically. “Even if they were
crying inside.”

Stalkey nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. It sounds real corny today, but they
actually did it, and Tom Agate was one of the greatest.” As he walked
back and forth, from one corner of the room to the other, his eyes
shining with excitement, Peggy suddenly saw what May Berriman meant when
she said that Oscar Stalkey had all the enthusiasm of a little boy. He
was in love with the theater, after thirty years still as stage-struck
as a newcomer.

“Tom Agate,” Oscar Stalkey was saying. “Why, I’ve seen that man hold an
entire audience in the palm of his hand for more than an hour.”

“What did he do?” Pam asked.

“Do?” Stalkey frowned. “He was a performer. He sang songs, danced a
little.”

“Actually, he danced badly,” Peter Grey said with a smile.

Stalkey was forced to agree. “Yes, I guess he did. But that didn’t make
any difference. He was a personality and the audience loved him.”
Stalkey made another tour of his office. “That was his secret,” he said.
“He understood people. He knew what made them laugh, and he knew how to
move them.” Stalkey stopped abruptly as if struck by a thought. He
cocked his head to one side as if trying to recall something. “What was
the name of that song he always sang—it was his theme song, an Irish
ballad, I think—ah, yes, ‘Kathleen Aroon’ it was. He used to play the
banjo along with it.”

“Yes, but Oscar,” Craig Claiborne objected, “he was just a
song-and-dance man. Even the movies he did were just filming his
vaudeville routines. He’s never had any acting experience.”

“Acting experience, my foot!” Stalkey said. “What the dickens does that
mean? The man’s been on the stage for most of his life!”

“You’ve got to admit,” Claiborne replied patiently, “that playing a
sustained role is a lot different from coming out for a few minutes
every night with a song or two and some jokes.”

“Oh, I know, I know.” Stalkey brushed him away. “You may be right. But I
still think it’s worth a chance. I’d like to hear him read for the
part.”

“I don’t know,” Claiborne said dubiously. “It’s taking a big chance.”

“Not as much as you think,” Stalkey said earnestly. “Besides, I bet
there are people all over this country who still remember Tom Agate and
would come to see him. His old vaudeville admirers, his movie and radio
audiences, the men he entertained during the war. He might be quite a
drawing card.” He hopped over to Peter and clapped him on the back.

“Peter,” he chortled, “I think you’ve hit it.”

“If you can find him,” Claiborne added.

Stalkey nodded. “Do you think you can track him down?” he asked Peter
anxiously.

Peter shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I’ll certainly try.”

“You’ll have to locate him within the next three days,” Stalkey warned.

“Meanwhile,” Claiborne said, “we’d better contact Eddie Jarmin or Jim
Donohue. If this Agate fellow doesn’t pan out, we’ll have to fall back
on one of them.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Stalkey said mournfully. “Will you see to it, Pam?”

Pam made a note of the request and then cleared her throat. “There’s
another matter you’ve got to attend to,” she said.

Stalkey stopped in surprise. “What’s that?”

Pam pointed to the door. “You’ve got about two dozen young ladies
cooling their heels out there. Don’t you think you’d better see them?”

Stalkey clapped his hand over his forehead. “What a waste of time!” he
groaned. He turned and walked over to the door.

“Wait a minute,” Pam called out. “What about Peggy Lane?”

Stalkey stopped and looked at Peggy for the first time since the phone
call. “Oh,” he said, blinking at her as if she were a complete stranger.
“Oh, well, tomorrow morning, then,” he said airily.

“For what?” Peggy asked timidly.

Stalkey wrung his hands impatiently. “For what?” he muttered. “To read,
of course,” he said. “We want you to read for the general understudy.”
He glanced over at Claiborne. “What time are we holding tryouts?” he
asked.

“Nine-thirty,” the director answered.

“Nine-thirty,” Stalkey said. “Be at the Elgin Theater at nine-thirty
tomorrow morning to read a scene from _Innocent Laughter_. Is that
clear?”

Peggy nodded numbly. “Yes, sir,” she said.

“Good.” Stalkey went over to the door and threw it open. “Thank you very
much,” he said briskly. “That’ll be all for now.”

Peggy gathered her purse and gloves, made her way unsteadily to the
door, passed down a double line of curious, envying stares, and finally
found herself outside by the elevator door. As she waited for it, she
wondered if she could get back to the Gramercy Arms without screaming
for joy. She had passed the first test.



                                   IV
                          “Innocent Laughter”


“Ground floor.”

The elevator bumped to a halt and discharged its load of passengers into
the busy lobby. Still numb from the half hour she had spent in Oscar
Stalkey’s office, Peggy allowed herself to be pulled along by the crowd
that surged toward the building entrance.

The big clock above the main doors registered a little after eleven—too
early for lunch and too late to make any more appointments for the
morning. Peggy idly wondered what to do next. Her first impulse had been
to go directly to the Gramercy Arms with the news. But Amy was out and
May was probably busy. Besides, at eleven o’clock on a weekday morning,
the big house would be almost deserted. The girls nearly all were on
jobs or were out busily hunting them.

Suddenly, Peggy felt strangely lonely. The need for someone to talk to
became overwhelming. She paused by the public telephone booths near the
revolving door and thought of calling home to Rockport, Wisconsin. She
could almost hear her mother at the other end of the line, excited and
happy to hear the good news. It would be good to hear her familiar voice
again.

On the other hand, wasn’t it silly to call now before she really knew
about the part? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until she was sure and not
make the same mistake Amy had made with her mother?

Peggy was still standing indecisively beside the telephone booth when
the elevator behind her clanged open to release a second wave of people.
The flood engulfed her and flowed on to the door.

“Watch it, lady,” growled an irritated voice. “You’re blocking the
road.”

Hastily Peggy moved out of the way. “Sorry,” she said, backing into a
delivery boy on his way into the building with a full load of packages.

“Why don’tcha look where yer going?” the delivery boy muttered, glaring
balefully at her over the top of his packages.

“Sorry,” Peggy murmured again. She decided she’d better get out of the
line of traffic, but as she turned toward one of the side doors, a hand
reached out and held her back.

“Excuse me,” said a familiar voice, “but can you use the services of a
good, reliable Boy Scout? I’m kind, honest, trustworthy, true—”

Peggy spun around with a gasp of surprise. “Randy! What are you doing
here?”

The tall, lean figure of Randolph Brewster, the young playwright Peggy
had met when she first came to New York, hovered over her. “I sent my
spies out early this morning.” He laughed. “They tracked you down to
this place.” He moved closer and took her arm. “Well?” he asked
expectantly.

Peggy looked at him sharply. “Who told you about _that_?” she demanded.
“Honestly, Randy, can’t a girl have any secrets?”

“Nope,” he answered good-naturedly. “Not from me, anyway. All right,” he
said. “I’ll tell you how I know. Amy told me.”

“Amy!”

“Sure. She was on the phone at a quarter past eight this morning,
talking thirteen to the dozen. She was convinced that you’d get a chance
to read for the part. Did you?”

Peggy’s breathless nod gave him the answer. Randy grinned and gave her
arm an enthusiastic squeeze. “That’s wonderful, Peggy! When do you
audition?”

“Tomorrow morning at nine-thirty.”

Randy pushed her ahead of him into the revolving door. “Where are we
going?” she asked over her shoulder, but the door had already closed
behind her. The next instant she found herself on the street, waiting
for Randy. “You seem in an awful hurry,” she said as Randy emerged.
“What’s up?”

“You’ll see,” Randy said as he reclaimed her arm. “Amy’s got a surprise
lined up for you.”

“Can’t you tell me what it is?”

Randy smiled. “I suppose so. Amy’s been waiting in line outside the
Elgin Theater since nine o’clock this morning. She’s determined to get
standing-room tickets for this afternoon’s performance of _Innocent
Laughter_.”

Peggy stopped. “Not really!” She gasped.

“Yes, really.” Randy urged her on. “Come on, let’s tell her the good
news.”

A few moments later, they turned the corner and walked down one of the
side streets that run into Broadway. They were now in the heart of New
York’s theater district, where famous names stared down at them from
every side. When Peggy first had come to New York, she had envisioned
theaters stretching along the entire length of Broadway. It had been
quite a surprise to discover that nearly all of New York’s theaters were
actually located on rather shabby-looking side streets. But there they
were, with one block housing as many as half a dozen play-houses, each
with its tremendous sign and a marquee jutting out over the pavement.

Under one of the marquees, about halfway down the block, stood Amy. She
saw them coming and ran toward them, waving a small envelope
triumphantly.

“I got them!” she cried. She came to a stop beside Peggy and stared at
her hopefully, eyes sparkling in anticipation. “Now, honey,” she said,
“you’ve got to tell me it’s been worth it, standing all this time.
You’re going to read for the part, aren’t you?”

[Illustration: _Amy waved a small envelope triumphantly._]

Peggy smiled and nodded. “Tomorrow morning,” she said. “I can’t believe
it yet—”

Amy let out a whoop and grabbed Peggy’s hands. “Oh, honey, I could kiss
you, I’m so happy.” She looked at Randy proudly. “You see!” she
demanded. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“You sure did,” Randy admitted with a grin. “Even at a quarter past
eight this morning. I could have cheerfully wrung your neck for waking
me up!”

“It did you good to get up,” Amy told him. “Now you’ve got to tell me
all about it,” she said to Peggy. “Let’s take a walk, have a nice lunch,
and then get to the theater early.”

“But aren’t you tired, Amy?” Peggy protested. “You’ve been standing here
all morning.”

Amy laughed her tinkling, infectious laugh. “After a year of looking for
work in New York,” she said, “my feet are used to it.” She wedged
between Peggy and Randy, took both of them by the arm, and swung down
the street toward Broadway. “Come on, you all,” she said cheerfully. “I
want to hear everything that happened....”

At six o’clock that evening, the three of them were sitting in Tony’s
Place, a postage stamp-sized restaurant near the Gramercy Arms that
specialized in heaping plates of spaghetti, smothered with rich,
aromatic meat sauce. The spaghetti was ordered and on its way.
Meanwhile, they were munching on crusty Italian bread with sweet butter.

“Whew!” Amy exclaimed wearily, as she speared a pat of butter from the
iced butter dish in the center of the table. “It sure is good to sit
down. What did you think of the play?”

Peggy shook her head enviously. “Diana Peters was awfully good, wasn’t
she? The way she played that scene with the old grandfather, you could
tell what she was thinking and what she was feeling every minute. I
don’t think I could ever do that—”

“Oh, don’t talk silly,” Amy said, biting into a piece of bread. “That’s
exactly the kind of part you _can_ play.”

“I don’t know,” Peggy replied dubiously. “What do you think, Randy?”

Randy had been absorbed in thought ever since they left the matinee. At
that moment, he was chewing moodily on a crisp stalk of green celery. “I
wouldn’t worry about that scene too much,” he said. “You just said
yourself you knew what she was thinking and feeling every minute.”

“Yes, but—”

Randy leaned forward, jabbing the stalk of celery in Peggy’s direction.
“What _was_ she thinking?” he queried. “That girl in the play. Now don’t
forget, she’s in New York for the first time. She doesn’t know her
mother very well and she’s never even met her grandmother. What’s she
looking for?”

Peggy shrugged. “Excitement, I suppose. Life.”

Randy nodded emphatically. “That’s it,” he said. “In her mind, she sees
New York as a romantic fairy-tale city where people can live exciting
lives—”

“If they know how,” Amy interrupted.

“Exactly,” Randy said. “And the daughter in the play doesn’t know how.
When she first comes on stage, she’s hoping that her mother will tell
her. But her mother is too preoccupied with her own life to spend much
time with her daughter’s problems. In fact, it never even occurs to her
that she has any.”

“And later on,” Amy chimed in, “the daughter turns to her
grandmother—the one she’s never met before. Again, the same thing
happens.”

“At that point,” Randy said, taking charge of the conversation, “the
daughter realizes she’s on her own. She decides the thing to do is to
fall in love. Unfortunately, the first man she meets is all wrong for
her. But she can’t see it and neither can the others.”

“But the grandfather sees it,” Amy said brightly.

“Yes,” Randy nodded. “He knows what she’s doing and has a long talk with
her. On the surface it’s very light and funny, but actually it goes
deeper than that. His granddaughter means a lot to the old man, and he’s
trying the best way he knows how to give her the experience of his
years. He knows he can’t lecture her—she’s too stubborn for that, and so
they just sit by the fire and talk. They talk about life and growing up.
About families and the tremendous joy that life offers. All of that.”

“You mean,” Peggy said, “that the grandfather and the young girl are
getting to know each other as people, not just as relatives.”

Bandy slapped his hand down on the table. “That’s exactly it,” he said
approvingly. “It’s a scene where two people start out as comparative
strangers and end up as close friends. Despite all the laugh lines, it’s
a very tender moment—and that’s the way it should be played.”

“You don’t think I should try for comedy?” Peggy asked.

Randy shook his head emphatically. “Everybody will be doing that,” he
said. “If you offer them something a little different, they’ll notice
you. Besides, the play is so well written that the comedy can take care
of itself.”

“All right,” Peggy said. “I’ll do it. But that’s not the way Diana
Peters played it this afternoon.”

Randy frowned. “I know it,” he said. “And that’s been worrying me. Right
now _Innocent Laughter_ is being acted all wrong.”

Amy broke into a laugh. “Oh, Randy!” she cried. “Here’s the biggest hit
on Broadway, and you say it’s all wrong.”

“No, listen to me,” Randy said, hunching over the table earnestly.
“Who’s the central character?”

“The mother,” Amy replied promptly. “It’s the biggest part.”

“It may be the biggest part,” Randy said. “But the play doesn’t hang
together that way.”

“Well, what’s wrong with it?” Amy challenged.

“I think the emphasis should be shifted to the two older people,” Randy
replied.

“You mean the grandmother and the grandfather?”

“Right. Look at the mother. She’s shallow at the beginning and just as
shallow at the end. She hasn’t learned a thing. But the grandmother has.
After all, she decides to go back to the grandfather. You remember that
wonderful scene between the two of them in the second act?”

“Yes,” said Peggy. “I thought that was the best thing in the play.”

“I did too,” Randy said. “You see, _Innocent Laughter_ deals with three
women who are being very foolish about their lives. The grandfather is
brought in to straighten them out. He succeeds with two of them, but
fails with the third.”

“Then why didn’t they play it the way you think it should be done?” Amy
demanded.

Randy shrugged. “It’s hard to say, but my guess is they wanted a
glamorous star to play the part of the mother and had to tailor the
whole play around her. Don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s still a good
play, but it could be much, much better.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Amy said, brushing the bread crumbs to one side.
“But let’s have a short intermission. Soup’s on.”

Smiling genially, as he threaded his way past the tables in his crowded
restaurant, came Tony with the spaghetti.

“Ahhh!” breathed Amy contentedly. “What a beautiful sight. I’m so hungry
I could eat miles of it.”

“Eat all you want,” Randy told her airily. “Treat’s on me tonight.”

“Oh, no,” Peggy protested. “We’re going Dutch, same as always.”

“Nothing doing,” Randy said. “Tonight we celebrate.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little early?” Peggy said.

Randy looked over at her and slowly shook his head. “No, I don’t,” he
said, reaching out for her hand. “Frankly, I don’t think you can miss.”

Randy kept Peggy’s hand in his until Tony came up to their table,
looking for a place to put the cheese. Finally Randy drew his hand back
and gave Peggy a wordless smile.

It was nice to know everyone was so confident, Peggy thought to herself,
but she knew tomorrow wouldn’t be easy. She glanced up at the clock over
the open kitchen in the rear. It read six-thirty. In fifteen hours, she
would be on the stage of the Elgin Theater, reading for the part of the
general understudy in _Innocent Laughter_. Just fifteen short hours! The
thought sent a shiver of dread and almost unbearable excitement running
down her back. Telling herself that tomorrow was still a long way off,
Peggy picked up a fork and tried to concentrate on Tony’s wonderful
spaghetti.

Why, she wondered miserably, had she ever thought she could be an
actress? Why hadn’t she stayed home in Rockport and become a
schoolteacher as her father had wished?



                                   V
                                Tryouts


Peggy was still thinking the same thing the following morning as she
walked up Broadway toward the Elgin Theater. The day had started off
badly with showers and sharp, gusty blasts of wind that sent a fine rain
spattering over the deserted streets. New York’s theater district was
like a ghost town in the early-morning hours. Except for a few familiar
faces—the blind newspaper dealer at the corner of Forty-fourth and
Broadway, the white-jacketed soda fountain clerk reading a magazine in
the window, and the inevitable knot of musicians clustered at the corner
of Forty-fifth street—no one was abroad. People in show business worked
late and slept late. But by noon, Peggy knew, the streets would be
crowded.

She hurried past the newspaper stand, her high heels beating a brisk
tattoo on the sidewalk. The dealer was sitting inside his tiny booth
behind neat stacks of newspapers. When he heard Peggy’s footsteps his
head came up and a smile crossed his face.

“Good morning, miss,” he said cheerfully. “You’re out early today.”

“Good morning,” Peggy called back. “Not a very nice day, is it?”

“Not for some,” the blind man replied. “But it’s a grand day for you.”

Peggy stopped in her tracks and stared at him. “What do you mean?” she
asked.

The newspaper dealer’s smile broadened. “Your audition this morning.” He
chuckled at Peggy’s obvious astonishment, even though he couldn’t see
her face. “Word gets around,” he assured her. “After all, you’ve passed
my stand nearly every morning for months now. I like to know my
customers. Good luck. We’re all pulling for you.”

“Who—” Peggy started to say, but he waved her on.

“You don’t have much time,” he told her. “But don’t be too surprised.
You’ve got more friends in New York than you think.”

Peggy said good-by and moved on, reflecting that New York wasn’t such a
big place after all. People said it was cold and impersonal, but maybe
it wasn’t as bad as they insisted.

[Illustration: _“Good luck. We’re all pulling for you,” the blind
newsdealer said._]

The soft-drink counter that fronted on Broadway was halfway down the
next block. A garish red-and-orange sign, bigger than the shop,
proclaimed that it specialized in a drink called PinaCola. Against a
violently colored scene of neon-lighted palm trees a second sign
advertised PinaCola as a “Refreshing, Tropical Fruit Drink—a Sparkling
Blend of Fresh Pineapple Juice and Cola.” The store also served hot dogs
and hamburgers, a limited menu of sandwiches, and hot tea and coffee. It
was built so that customers could get service directly from the street
without going inside. Peggy often stopped there in the morning for a cup
of tea, which was served by a friendly, gum-chewing attendant named
Harry.

Harry, as usual, sat near the front of the store, his starched white cap
perched on the back of his head. As Peggy passed by, he looked up from
his magazine and rapped on the sliding glass window that opened out on
the street.

Peggy heard the sound and smiled over at him. Harry broke into a huge
grin and crossed his fingers in what was obviously a good-luck sign.
Peggy waved and hurried ahead. Even Harry knew where she was going.

Before she had time to puzzle out the almost magical way news seemed to
get around on Broadway, she was stopped by a third well-wisher.

“Good luck, baby,” came a voice from a nearby doorway. “Belt it out real
cool, and knock ’em dead.” Three or four other men smiled and nodded.

They were musicians who congregated daily in the same place. No one
quite knew why they were there, but at practically any hour of the day
or night you could find them. The area was generally known as the
“musicians’ corner” and if anyone needed a trumpet player or a guitarist
on short notice, he could call the cigar counter in the lobby of the
building. The attendant was careful to hold all messages. It was one of
those informal arrangements that puzzled outsiders but was accepted
without question by those who lived and worked in that strange world in
New York called show business.

Peggy smiled back at the men and turned down the street that led to the
Elgin Theater. At the corner her progress was momentarily halted by a
line of sleepy-looking people boarding a chartered bus parked in front
of a sign that read: “Sight-seeing Tours Meet Here.” A brisk,
businesslike man in uniform was herding them aboard.

“Step lively, folks,” he was saying. “New York’s a big city and we’ve
got a lot to see.” He gave Peggy a good-natured wink as she went by, as
if acknowledging the presence of another insider—a greeting from one New
Yorker to another. It made Peggy feel that she belonged in the big city
and that she was really a part of Manhattan. She swung down the street
with renewed confidence.

In front of the theater, a row of shiny glass doors blocked her
entrance. A small printed sign over the center door informed the public
that “Box Office Opens at 10 A.M.” Peggy tried the door and found it
locked.

Moving to the next door, she was met by a gray-haired man who opened it
a crack. “Sorry,” he said. “Box office won’t be open for another half
hour.” Off to her right, Peggy noticed that a line had already formed.
The early birds watched her with interest.

“I have an appointment,” Peggy said. “With Mr. Stalkey.”

The doorkeeper immediately stepped back and motioned her inside. “Just a
minute,” he said, reaching for a list on a clipboard. “Your name,
please?”

“Peggy Lane.”

The man checked off her name with a flourish. “Right. Go inside,
please.”

Peggy nodded at him absent-mindedly and pushed her way into the dark
interior of the theater.

There was something about a deserted theater that was both lifeless and
exciting. It was a strange, gloomy world of silent rows of seats that
looked almost like headstones in a cemetery.

And then there was the smell.

All empty theaters had the same unmistakable odor. It was a combination
of stale air and fish glue. The glue, Peggy knew from many long hours in
summer stock, was called “sizing,” and was used over canvas flats to
keep them stretched tight on their frames. Its odor was barely
noticeable at the back of the house, but farther on down, close to the
stage, it was quite strong. Backstage, of course, it was strongest, but
there it was mixed with countless other odors of theatrical life—the
sweet, oily smell of grease paint, the acrid cloud that was generated by
the electrician’s lighting board—all so familiar to Peggy. They were an
integral part of her life, just as the smell of printer’s ink was of her
father’s.

Blinking her eyes until they were adjusted to the shadowy darkness,
Peggy was aware that the curtain was up. In the middle of the stage
stood a plain worklight—an ugly, bare iron pole topped with a single,
powerful electric light bulb. It shed a harsh, uncompromising light that
threw grotesque shadows over the back of the set and down into the
orchestra. Near the rail that separated the orchestra pit from the
audience, Peggy could see three or four men, deep in earnest, low-voiced
conversation. In various parts of the auditorium, girls were sitting in
groups or singly. Nobody noticed her and nobody came up to tell her what
to do, so Peggy slipped unobtrusively into one of the seats off a side
aisle.

In a few moments, one of the men down front stood up and consulted his
watch. From his tall, loose-limbed movements, Peggy recognized him as
Craig Claiborne, the director of _Innocent Laughter_.

Claiborne moved up the center aisle, scanned the house, and apparently
was satisfied with what he saw. He turned and cupped his hands over his
mouth.

“Frank!” he yelled. “Let’s have some lights.”

From somewhere backstage a muffled voice shouted, “Okay!” The next
instant the stage was flooded with a soft yellow light. A moment later
an electrician shuffled over to the worklight, unplugged it, and dragged
it off to the wings. As he made his ungraceful exit, a tall, wiry man in
his shirt sleeves stepped on stage. In his hand, he carried two scripts.
He sat down behind a small, wooden table near the footlights and
proceeded to light a cigarette despite the No Smoking signs that covered
the theater walls. No one objected.

Claiborne turned and mounted some steps that led to the stage. Shading
his eyes against the glare, he advanced toward the audience and cleared
his throat for attention.

“Good morning,” he began. “I’ll skip the preliminaries because we all
know why we’re here. The scene I want you to read this morning is in the
second act of _Innocent Laughter_. It takes place between the young
daughter and her grandfather. You understand that you’re not reading for
the part of the daughter, but for the general understudy. Let me quickly
describe the action for you, and we’ll start.”

In a long-legged stride, Claiborne moved to a doorway at stage left.
“The daughter comes through this door into the living room. She thinks
it is deserted, but actually her grandfather is sitting in that wing
chair by the fire. The audience can see him, but she can’t. At this
point in the play, the daughter has just decided to marry the young man.
She’s excited at the prospect and also a little unsure of herself. She
goes over to the window here”—Claiborne walked to a set of double French
doors—“and looks out. She sighs once, then the grandfather speaks. She
turns around in surprise, and they begin their conversation.”

Claiborne returned to the footlights. “I want each of you to go through
the entrance. Mr. Fox”—he indicated the man puffing on a cigarette—“will
read the scene with you. Mr. Fox, incidentally, is our assistant stage
manager.”

The man at the table acknowledged the introduction by lifting one hand
and then letting it drop.

“Now then,” Claiborne said, “we’ll have Miss Celia Forrester.” As a
blond girl in a very tight dress got up to take her place on the stage,
Claiborne continued, “Keep on reading until I tell you to stop. When
you’re excused, please return the script to Mr. Fox and leave the
theater by the stage door. You’ll find it out beyond stage right.”

Miss Forrester, meanwhile, had collected her copy of the playscript from
Mr. Fox and was already disappearing behind the door. “All right, Miss
Forrester,” Claiborne called out. “We’re ready whenever you are.
Remember to take your time.”

There was an expectant hush as everyone in the theater settled back to
wait for the girl’s entrance. It came in a rush. The door flew open and
Miss Forrester leaped out on stage, clutching the manuscript in one
hand. Looking a little like some hunted animal, she darted over to the
window and groaned ecstatically. That was the cue for Mr. Fox to read
his line, but he was so fascinated by the girl’s entrance, he merely
stared at her. The young actress flashed him a peremptory glance and
heaved her sigh a second time. The assistant stage manager started
guiltily and quickly found the place.

“‘Why did you come in so quietly?’” Mr. Fox read. “‘You’re as furtive as
a lady burglar tonight. What’s wrong?’”

He had a high-pitched nasal voice without a trace of expression.

Miss Forrester whirled around with a gasp. “‘Oh!’” she cried in a
simpering tone. “‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’”

“‘I’ll go if you like,’” Mr. Fox continued.

Miss Forrester tripped over to him girlishly. “‘Oh, no! Please don’t,’”
she said breathlessly. “‘There’s—there’s something I want to talk to you
about.’” For some reason, Miss Forrester decided that a laugh would be
effective at this point. It rang clear and loud through the hollow
stillness of the empty theater.

Peggy saw Craig Claiborne slump deeper into his seat and bury his head
in his hands. After a few more moments he unwound himself and stood up.
“Thank you—thank you very much, Miss Forrester. We’ll call you.”

Miss Forrester, who had been stopped in mid-sentence, closed her mouth
and returned the playscript to Mr. Fox. Flashing Claiborne a smile, she
left the stage.

“Miss Palmers, please,” Claiborne announced. “Miss Ruth Palmers.”

Ruth Palmers turned out to be an extremely self-assured young woman who
took the script from Mr. Fox as though she were doing him a favor. She
glided haughtily to the door and closed it behind her.

“All right,” Claiborne called. “Any time.”

The door opened slowly, and Miss Palmers was revealed leaning
languorously against the frame. Keeping her eyes fixed on some distant
point in space, she stepped on stage and floated over to the window.
Collecting herself, she arched her back and breathed a tiny bored sigh.

“‘Why did you come in so quietly?’” read the faithful Mr. Fox. “‘You’re
as furtive as a lady burglar tonight. What’s wrong?’”

Miss Palmers gave a little pout of surprise and turned to regard him
coldly. “‘Ahh,’” she drawled. “‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’”

“‘I’ll go if you like,’” came the answering line, as the scene got under
way for the second time.

Miss Palmers lasted a little longer than Miss Forrester before she too
was dismissed. The third girl was allowed to read the entire scene.
Peggy saw she was a good, competent actress. Claiborne even worked with
her on some of the lines.

The fourth candidate was banished before she could read two lines. She
departed from the stage looking thoroughly defeated—as if this sort of
thing happened to her all the time.

Both of the next two girls read well. Peggy noticed they had bright,
attractive personalities which shone especially when they came to the
laugh lines. It would be her turn soon. She only hoped that Randy was
right in his diagnosis of the scene. She was determined to play it with
tenderness.

Peggy was jolted back to reality by Craig Claiborne’s voice calling,
“Miss Lane. Miss Peggy Lane, please.”

Peggy lifted herself out of her seat and walked down the aisle on
rubbery legs. Suddenly her throat became as dry as a lump of cotton
wool. But somehow she managed to get on stage, take the script from Mr.
Fox, and move through the door.

At last she was backstage at the Elgin Theater. All around her, coils of
wire and rope snaked across the floor. Above her, high over the stage,
she could see rows of heavy sandbags used as counterweights whenever
scenery was “flown.” Behind her, by the electrician’s board, a heavy-set
stagehand was tipped back in a chair, reading the morning paper. He
didn’t even bother to give her a glance.

“All right,” came Claiborne’s voice. “Any time.”

Peggy forced herself to relax. She drew a deep breath and expelled every
drop of air from her lungs. Then she took a second breath and pushed
open the door.

It’s night, Peggy thought to herself. The room is probably dark except
for the glow of the fire. She moved quietly, tentatively, and closed the
door softly. She stood for a moment, as if she were listening for
something, then walked quickly over to the big double window. Very
gently, she pulled back a curtain. New York was supposed to be stretched
out there in front of her, and Peggy tried to remember what it was like
to see the lights of New York in real life. She conjured them up and
sighed. The lights of New York....

“‘Why did you come in so quietly? You’re as furtive as a lady burglar
tonight. What’s wrong?’”

The line was totally unexpected. Of course, Peggy knew the words would
be spoken, but they still came as a surprise. She turned in genuine
astonishment. “‘Oh!’” she exclaimed. “‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’”

“‘I’ll go if you like.’”

Peggy moved down to the wing chair, trying to envision an old man
sitting there. A kind old man with a strong, salty sense of humor, whom
she didn’t know too well.

“‘Oh, no! Please don’t,’” Peggy read. There was real conviction in her
voice. “‘There’s—there’s something I want to talk to you about.’”

Suddenly Peggy knew how the girl in the play would feel. She would be a
little afraid of her grandfather, even though she recognized all his
good qualities. The girl would be unsure of how to start the
conversation.

Mr. Fox, playing the grandfather, read the encouraging lines. Peggy
answered him. The pieces were beginning to fall into place now. She read
with mounting conviction and assurance until, abruptly, a voice
shattered the illusion.

“Thank you, Miss Lane. We’ll be in touch with you.”

It couldn’t be over yet! Peggy stopped in stunned amazement. Just when
it was going so well! She felt the script being taken out of her hand
and realized that she had been dismissed. Fighting back the tears, Peggy
moved over to the right of the stage and ran off into the wings.

She was grateful there was no one backstage to see her. She turned the
corner that led to the stage entrance and thudded against somebody
coming into the theater.

Peggy blinked the tears away and looked up to see Katherine Nelson
standing in front of her. Katherine Nelson opened her mouth to speak,
but Peggy didn’t stop to listen.

Murmuring apologies under her breath, she brushed past the star and
threw open the heavy door. All she wanted was to get out of the theater
and as far away from _Innocent Laughter_ as she could. She barely heard
the steel door clang shut behind her as she walked quickly down the
street—away from Broadway.



                                   VI
                         “Why Don’t You Quit?”


“Peggy, honey, it just can’t be as bad as all that!”

“You don’t know!” Peggy was in her dressing gown, stretched across her
bed, still thinking about the audition that morning. “I hardly got out
five lines before he stopped me. Honestly, I’ve never been so
embarrassed in my life.”

“You can’t tell,” Amy said. “Maybe he didn’t have to hear any more.”

“I’m sure he didn’t,” Peggy replied bitterly. “I’m sure he heard all he
wanted. More than he wanted.” She got up and walked distractedly over to
the window. “Whatever made me think I could be an actress! I ought to
have my head examined!”

“You _are_ an actress,” Amy said stoutly. “And a darned good one.”

Peggy whirled on her angrily. “You wouldn’t say that if you could have
heard me. I must have sounded like an old crow!”

Amy shook her head. “You certainly are taking this hard,” she said. “I
can’t do a thing to cheer you up.”

“Oh, Amy.” Peggy went over to her roommate and took her by the hand.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you. It’s just that—that—oh, I don’t know.”

“I wish I’d seen you,” Amy declared.

Peggy looked at her in surprise. “Why? What could you have done?”

“I just think you’re exaggerating, that’s all. But I can’t convince you
because I wasn’t there.”

“Well, thanks anyway, but I’m not.” Peggy sat down and closed her eyes.

“You’d better get dressed,” Amy said after a pause.

Peggy opened one eye. “What for?”

“You have to eat, don’t you? I bet you didn’t have any lunch.”

“I had a bite,” Peggy said listlessly. “But I’m not hungry right now.
You go on.”

“Not without you.”

“No, please go.” Peggy sat up and looked at Amy earnestly. “Really, I
wouldn’t mind being alone for a little while. I’ve got some thinking to
do.”

“Sometimes two heads are better than one.”

Peggy shook her head doubtfully. “Not on this problem,” she said. “I’ve
got to decide whether to stay in New York.”

Amy jumped to her feet. “Peggy!” she cried. “That’s the most outrageous
thing I’ve ever heard!”

“But what’s the sense in beating my brains out?”

“Oh, Peggy!” It was Amy’s turn to look distracted. “What would you do?
Where would you go?”

“Do?” Peggy said vacantly. “I guess I’d go back home and do what Dad
wanted me to do all along. Be a schoolteacher.”

“You wouldn’t be happy,” Amy said gently.

“No,” Peggy admitted. “I suppose I wouldn’t. But it would be better than
this.”

Amy crossed the room with firm strides and sat down on the bed beside
Peggy. Her usually cheerful face was set in a serious line. “Now you
listen to me, Peggy Lane,” she said severely. “I don’t know how you read
today and I don’t care. The important thing is that this was your very
first audition for an important play. Of course, you were nervous. Who
wouldn’t be? Maybe you didn’t do as well as you thought you could, but
that doesn’t mean you can’t. Two nights ago, I was the one who wanted to
quit, and remember what you said to me then. You told me to face up to
what happened and not let it get me down. And now here you’re doing the
very thing you warned me against.”

“Yes, but Amy,” Peggy said, “tell me something, frankly.”

“What is it?”

Peggy paused to choose her words with care. “Supposing—just suppose now,
you discovered you didn’t have any talent—”

Amy tossed her head angrily. “Oh, Peggy!” she cried reproachfully.

“Now don’t interrupt,” Peggy said. “Just let me finish and answer my
question. If you found out you didn’t have any talent as an actress,
would you still try to break into the theater? Or would you give it up,
much as you loved it?”

Amy stared at her thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Peggy,” she said. “I
honestly don’t know. What made you think of that?”

“I saw a girl today,” Peggy said. “She read at the audition. Craig
Claiborne stopped her before she could say three words—”

“There, you see!” Amy interrupted triumphantly. “You did better than
that!”

Peggy smiled wanly. “Yes, but not much. Anyway, the point I’m trying to
make is that Claiborne was right in stopping her. She was no good at
all.” She tucked her legs underneath her and leaned forward. “Now here’s
a girl,” Peggy went on, “who obviously thinks she’s got ability. But
actually she doesn’t. Isn’t she just deluding herself by going on?”

Amy shrugged. “You never know. She might get better.”

Peggy shook her head emphatically. “Not a chance in the world. You can
tell about some people. And, in a strange sort of way, I think she knew
it, too. You should have seen her face when Claiborne told her she could
go. It was as if she had heard the same thing so many times.”

“Well, how does all this apply to you?” Amy asked.

“I’m getting to that. How many girls want to be actresses, do you
think?”

Amy thought for a moment. “Thousands, I guess.”

“And a lot of them have some talent,” Peggy continued eagerly. “They
take part in school plays and church pageants and all that sort of
thing. Everybody tells them how good they are, and pretty soon they
begin to believe them. But Amy! What a difference between being the best
actress in your home town and competing in New York!”

“Don’t I know it!” Amy sighed.

“Well, then,” Peggy said, “supposing I’m one of those girls—” She held
up her hand. “Now don’t interrupt again,” she warned. “One of those
girls who has a certain amount of ability, but not enough to make the
grade in the professional theater. In that case, I think I owe it to
myself to go back home. Let me act if I want to, but in the local little
theater group—not as a starving outsider in New York. Right?”

“I guess so,” Amy agreed quietly. “But only if you’re convinced you
don’t have the talent.”

“And that’s what I have to figure out,” Peggy said. “I’m just not sure.”

Further discussion was interrupted by a soft knock.

“Come in,” the girls chorused. The door swung open to reveal May
Berriman standing in the hall with a tray in her hands.

“Room service,” she announced as she shouldered her way inside. “Would
you mind clearing off that dresser so I can put down the tray?”

“May!” Peggy cried. “What’s all this for?”

“Custom of the house,” May replied loftily as she set down her tray. “We
do it whenever a girl has her first big audition. We figure that she’s
too exhausted to go out and eat afterward.”

“I don’t believe it,” Peggy said.

“Well, you’re right,” May replied dryly. “But I heard you had a fit of
the blues, and I thought this might help. How do you feel?”

“She feels terrible,” Amy answered. “She’s the original Calamity Jane.”

“Uh huh.” May nodded. “Feeling sorry for yourself, eh? Here, try some of
this soup.” She looked at Peggy sharply. “What’s the matter? Did you
walk out on the stage with two left feet?”

Peggy smiled briefly. “That’s just about it. I did a dreadful job.”

May put a plate of soup on Peggy’s lap. “Who said so?” she demanded
brusquely.

“Nobody had to tell me,” Peggy said. “I was there. He stopped me after
five lines.”

May whistled admiringly. “Five lines! Say, that’s pretty good. I
remember my first audition—they didn’t even let me take a deep breath.”

“Come on!”

“I’m not joking. Tell me, were your legs shaking?”

Peggy laughed. “I didn’t think I could make it to the stage.”

“I know the feeling. It’s like trying to walk across a plate of Jello.
Well,” May said cheerfully, “you’ve got all the right symptoms. You
should recover in a day or two.”

“In a day or two she might be gone,” Amy blurted out.

“What?” May turned to Amy in blank amazement. “What do you mean?”

“She’s thinking of going back home,” Amy said. “She doesn’t think she’s
got enough talent.”

May’s expression hardened as she stared at Peggy. “Well!” she said at
last. “Maybe she’s right.”

“May!” came Amy’s shocked voice.

“I mean it,” May said coldly. “There’s no room for anyone in the theater
without confidence.” She stalked over to the dresser and began taking
dishes off the tray. Amy and Peggy looked at each other in surprise.

Amy was the first to break the silence. “But, May,” she faltered,
“couldn’t you—I mean, don’t you think—”

“That she should stay?” May shook her head disdainfully. “Not if _she_
doesn’t think so.” The older woman turned and faced the two girls. “Look
here, you two. Whenever an actor or actress gets up on a stage in front
of thousands of people, he’s simply got to have confidence in himself.
He’s got to think that he’s the only person in the world who can play
the part. If he didn’t”—May threw up her hands—“he’d have no business
being in the theater.”

May walked over to Amy’s bed and sat down. “That doesn’t mean you have
to be vain and egotistical. Somebody like Katherine Nelson, for example.
She thinks the sun rises and sets for her own personal enjoyment.
Personally, I think her acting suffers because of her attitude, and
certainly she’s not a very attractive human being. No, what I’m talking
about is something quite different. It’s a quiet pride in your own craft
and ability. That’s the quality you need.”

May fixed Peggy with a steady stare. “I know what’s wrong with you,
young lady. You just want somebody to tell you how good you are. Well,
that’s not surprising. We all need approval. But in the theater, we
don’t always get it when we want it, and that means we’ve got to be
tough enough to keep on going no matter what people say. I didn’t say
hard, I said tough. There’s a big difference. Peggy, look at me.”

The young girl raised her eyes. “I think you’re a good actress. I can’t
tell you how good, because that depends on you. It depends on how hard
you’re willing to work and how fast you learn. But you have the basic
equipment to make it.”

May raised a finger to emphasize her point. “Even so, that’s still not
enough. You have to want to do it and you have to have a deep faith that
you can do it. Tell me, Peggy, do you think you could play the part of
the daughter in _Innocent Laughter_ if you had to? Tell me honestly
now.”

Peggy nodded briefly. “Yes,” she said with quiet conviction. “I know I
could.”

May sighed and stood up. “Then why do you want to leave New York?
_Innocent Laughter_ isn’t the only play you’re ever going to audition
for. And the next time you’ll do better. Let’s have a little backbone,
Peggy.”

Peggy sat staring at May for a moment, then flung herself into the older
woman’s arms. “Oh, May!” she said. “You’re right. I was being—I don’t
know what.”

“There, there,” May said soothingly, stroking the girl’s hair. “You’re
all right, Peggy. You just needed somebody to talk tough.” She put her
hands on Peggy’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “No more of this
talk about going home. Promise?”

Peggy nodded. “I promise,” she said with a laugh.

“Good girl. Go ahead and have a cry if you want. It’ll do you good. But
don’t forget to eat some supper.” She started to pat Peggy’s hand, but
stopped as the telephone buzzer squawked unexpectedly.

“Oh, oh,” May said. “Better not have that cry after all. Somebody wants
to talk to you.”

“I’ll go,” Amy cried, going toward the door. They could hear her
footsteps echoing down the hallway. The next instant, it seemed, they
heard them running back to the room at what sounded like full speed.

Amy appeared at the doorway, her face flushed with excitement and her
eyes bright. “Peggy!” she almost screamed. “You got it! You got it!”

For a moment it didn’t register. “Got what?” Peggy stammered.

“The part!” Amy danced into the room and made a grab for Peggy. “Hurry
up! It’s Peter Grey! He’s downstairs in the living room with Pam Mundy.
He told me to tell you that they’re ready to offer you the part of
general understudy in _Innocent Laughter_. He wants to talk to you about
it right now. Oh, Peggy, Peggy! All that worrying for nothing. You got
the part!”



                                  VII
                         Peggy Turns Detective


Peggy found Pam Mundy and Peter Grey sitting on one of the sofas in the
big living room of the Gramercy Arms. When Peggy walked through the
door, Peter jumped up and held out his hand.

“Congratulations,” he said. “We thought we’d come around and tell you
the good news personally.”

Peggy took the offered hand and smiled. “I still don’t believe it,” she
said. “You’re sure there’s no mistake?”

“Absolutely certain.”

Peggy smiled a second time and went over to sit beside Pam. “And you’re
the one who started it all,” she said.

Pam, who was a petite brunette with a quick, vivacious manner, leaned
her head back against the sofa and laughed. “That,” she said, “was what
they call a stroke of genius.”

“Well, whatever it was, I’ve got you to thank.”

Pam sat up suddenly. “Oh, no,” she said. “It’s the other way around. I’m
the one who should thank you.”

Peggy looked at her in surprise. “Whatever do you mean?”

“It’s simple,” Pam said seriously. “Oscar Stalkey was wondering whom to
get for the understudy, and I’m the fair-haired girl who came up with
the right name. Is he ever impressed!”

Peter held up his right hand. “That’s the truth,” he assured Peggy. “He
thinks Pam’s the greatest casting director in New York.”

“Well, not quite,” Pam said with a grin. “But at least he doesn’t think
I’m a silly girl butting in where I don’t have any business to be.”

She turned to Peggy with a sudden movement of annoyance. “Honestly,
Peggy, you wouldn’t believe the cold shoulders I’ve been given! I used
to think it was hard for a girl to get established as an actress, but
believe me, that’s a cinch compared to finding a good job in production.
Producers,” she continued, warming up to her topic, “are all alike. In
the first place, they’re nearly all men—”

“And that’s the way they want to keep it,” Peter finished with a smile.

“That’s right.” Pam nodded vigorously. “That’s exactly the trouble.” She
turned and appealed to Peggy. “What’s the matter with a woman being a
producer?” she demanded.

“Nothing. There are some very successful women producers.”

Pam brushed this aside. “They’re exceptions—”

“Whoa! Slow down a bit,” Peter said good-naturedly. “This is her
favorite topic,” he told Peggy. “The poor girl’s always telling us what
a hard life she leads.”

Pam subsided with a sheepish grin. “I guess you’re right. But it still
makes me mad to think—”

“Watch it,” Peter warned.

Pam stuck her tongue out at him and they both laughed. “The reason I can
give orders to the terrible-tempered Miss Mundy,” Peter said, “is that I
am now officially her boss.”

“I thought you worked for Mr. Stalkey,” Peggy said.

“We both work for Oscar Stalkey,” Peter explained, “but Pam works for
me. You see, I’ve been made company manager for the first road
production of _Innocent Laughter_, and Pam was just made my assistant.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Peggy cried excitedly. “That means we’ll be
going on tour together.”

“That’s right,” Peter answered. “And now, if my assistant will kindly
shut up for five minutes, maybe we can talk about the road tour for a
change. After all, that’s why we’re here.” He leaned forward. “First of
all, are there any questions?”

“Hundreds,” Peggy assured him. “So many I don’t know which one to ask
first. But how about this one? Why did I get the part?”

Peter looked surprised. “That’s easy. You read better than anyone else.”

Peggy shook her head in amazement. “I was so scared, my knees were all
wobbly. I thought I was terrible.”

Peter grinned. “You sure were scared,” he conceded. “We could
practically hear your teeth chattering. But you had the quality we were
looking for.”

“But what about the other girls?” Peggy said. “The ones that Craig
Claiborne worked with for a while.”

“They were almost right. Claiborne thought with a little help he could
make them give a performance. But then you came along and you were
perfect. And that was that!”

“I still can’t understand it,” Peggy marveled. “He cut me off so soon.”

“He didn’t have to hear any more.”

Peggy smiled. “That’s just what Amy said.”

“Well, she was right.” Peter reached into his coat pocket and pulled out
a sheaf of mimeographed papers. “Here,” he said, spreading them out over
the coffee table, “this is an outline of the tour as far as we know it.”

Peggy leaned over the table and watched Peter check off each stopping
place. “We open in Baltimore on the twelfth of next month. That’s just
five weeks away. We move south to Washington, swing west for a series of
performances through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, up to Ohio, over
to Indiana, and eventually to Chicago. It’s a rugged tour. A lot of
one-night stands in theaters that haven’t been properly used since the
days of vaudeville. Oscar Stalkey believes in bringing live theater to
all parts of the country—even if it kills all his actors.”

“How long will we be in Chicago?” Peggy asked.

“As long as they’ll keep us,” Peter answered with a wry smile.
“Actually, we’re the Chicago company of _Innocent Laughter_, but we’re
taking the long way around before we get there.”

“Is there another road company?”

“Oh, yes. It hasn’t been formed yet, though. They’ll play the Southwest
and California and probably settle in Los Angeles.”

“How do we travel?”

Peter and Pam exchanged glances and grinned. “You name it,” Peter said.
“We’ll be using every means of transportation known to man except the
ox-cart.”

“Don’t be too sure.” Pam laughed. “We may use that yet.”

“True,” Peter admitted. “Bus, hired car, trains, of course, planes.
Everything you can think of.”

“And hotel space?”

“That’s one of our headaches,” Pam said. “You see, moving a dozen people
and three tons of theatrical scenery around the country on a
split-second schedule is quite a chore.”

“We’re still worrying about the scenery,” Peter said. “When we get that
settled, we’ll start to think about the people.”

“Oh, I wasn’t complaining,” Peggy said hastily. “I’m sure everything
will be all right.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Peter said dryly. “I wish everyone was as easy
to please.”

“Why? Whom do you mean?”

“None other than that great lady of the theater, Katherine Nelson.”

Peggy felt a funny sinking sensation in her stomach. “Is she in the
cast?”

Peter nodded grimly. “Oh, yes. She’s the mother.”

“The romantic lead!”

“Yep.” Peter grinned at her. “Don’t look so surprised. What did you
expect her to play? The grandmother?”

Peggy shook her head. “I’ve only seen that woman twice, but I don’t
think she liked me.”

“Bingo!” Peter cried. “You’re so right. What did you do to her?”

“Nothing. Really, I didn’t do a thing. Why?”

“She saw you at the theater this morning and came storming up to Oscar
Stalkey. She wanted to know if you were being considered for the
understudy.”

“What did he say?”

“What could he say? Yes, naturally. She bounced around the theater like
an old bag of bones, she was so angry. I wonder why she’s taken such a
dislike to you.”

“I don’t know,” Peggy said. “I’ll just have to stay out of her way as
much as I can.”

“That’s not going to be easy,” Pam said. “Don’t forget, you’re playing a
small part in the first act. You’re playing the schoolgirl friend of the
daughter.”

“True,” Peggy said. “Does she know about it?”

“Not yet.”

“I bet there’ll be an explosion.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Peter counseled. “Oscar Stalkey can handle her
pretty well. He doesn’t let her get away with too much.”

“What was that fight about in the office the other day?” Peggy asked.
“Or shouldn’t I ask?”

Peter shrugged carelessly. “No big secret. She’d just finished
explaining to Stalkey that she should play the lead in the Broadway
production and not out in the sticks, as she put it.”

“Mr. Stalkey put her in her place soon enough,” Pam added with evident
satisfaction.

“And that’s why she was screaming,” Peter added. “She’s got to have her
own way or she throws a temper tantrum. Just like a child. I sometimes
wonder what ails that woman.”

Pam looked at him sharply. “Don’t be dumb, Peter. She simply can’t face
the fact that she’s not the romantic star she used to be.”

“Well, I wish she’d act her age,” Peter said moodily. “It’d be a lot
easier all around. Let’s change the subject. Any more questions, Peggy?”

“One or two. Who’s the rest of the cast?”

“Let’s see now. The grandmother—a wonderful part—is Emily Burckhardt.
The daughter is Marcy Hubbard. Do you know Marcy? She’s about your age,
I guess. A little older.”

Peggy shook her head. “No, but I’ve heard of her.”

“She’s nice. You’ll like her.”

“What about the grandfather?”

“Now that,” Peter said, “is a ticklish question.” He pushed a paper
across the table to Peggy. “You’d better hang on to that. It’s the first
of many to come. Before we start on tour, you’ll have mimeographed
sheets telling everything you’ll want to know—times of departures and
arrivals, accommodations assigned to you, absolutely everything. That’s
my headache.”

“And mine,” Pam said.

“Right,” Peter acknowledged with a grin. “But to get back to your
question about the grandfather. You heard our conversation in the
office?”

“You mean when you suggested Tom Agate?”

“That’s right.”

“Exactly who is Tom Agate? I think I know the name, and I remember your
saying he was a famous performer back in the days of vaudeville. But I’m
afraid I’m still not clear about—”

“That’s not surprising,” Peter interrupted. “Tom Agate retired from the
stage fifteen years ago.”

“Why did he retire?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Maybe he couldn’t get a job any more.”

“Tom Agate!” Peter said incredulously. “Don’t you believe it! Don’t
forget, that was just when television was starting. They were using a
lot of old-time vaudeville performers then, and Tom could have had any
number of jobs. I’ve spoken to several producers who wanted him, but
they couldn’t find him.”

“What do you mean—couldn’t find him?”

“Exactly that. He’d disappeared. Vanished.”

“Do you know where he is now?”

Peter paused and sat back in his chair. “No,” he said slowly. “I don’t.
But I think there’s a chance of tracing him.”

“How?”

“I ran into somebody the other day who says he’s positive that Tom is
still in New York. If he is, we’re going to find him.”

“Remember,” Pam pointed out, “you’ve only got two days.”

“I know, and that’s the trouble.”

“Where are you going to look first?” Peggy asked.

“I know a man, a friend of my father’s,” Peter said, “who’s been with
the drama department of the _Chronicle_ for the last forty years. He
knows more about the history of the American theater than anyone I’ve
ever met.” He looked straight at Peggy. “I thought we’d go down tomorrow
and talk to him.”

“We?” Peggy said in surprise.

Peter nodded. “I was hoping you’d be willing to help.”

“Well, sure,” Peggy said, “but how—”

“You see,” Peter went on excitedly, “I can’t get away during the day,
and neither can Pam. There’s just not enough time before the tour. We
both have to stick pretty close to the office. But I thought that maybe
you—” He trailed off and looked at Peggy hopefully.

“Could act as the bloodhound?” Peggy finished.

“That’s it. Will you?”

“I don’t even know what he looks like.”

Peter brushed this aside. “That’s no problem. We can go down to the
newspaper office first thing tomorrow morning and talk to my friend. His
name, by the way, is Johnny Dwyer. Johnny has a room full of old
clippings and photographs, and I bet he can give us a lead on Tom. Then
you can follow it up and let me know tomorrow evening. How about it?”

Peggy smiled. “Well, I once discovered a hidden theater. Maybe I’ll be
lucky enough to find a hidden actor.”

Peter bounced to his feet with a broad smile. “Good girl!” he said. “Can
you meet me on the fourth floor of the _Chronicle_ building at nine
o’clock tomorrow morning?”

“I’ll be there,” Peggy said.

“Good.” Peter gathered his papers and stuffed them in his pocket. “We’ll
have your contract prepared tomorrow, and when I meet you I’ll give you
a copy, and you can look it over. Then, if everything’s satisfactory,
you can sign it and deliver it back to us. Okay?”

Peggy sighed. “Sounds wonderful to me.”

“Sounds pretty good to us, too,” Peter replied. “I think we’re signing
on a first-class actress.”



                                  VIII
                               The Search


“Tom Agate? Sure, what can I tell you?”

Johnny Dwyer settled back in his chair and waved a hand invitingly at a
pair of battered office chairs. Peggy sat down in one of them and looked
at the figure in front of her with interest. Johnny Dwyer was a small,
birdlike man with a cheerful, pink face, snow-white hair and the
bushiest eyebrows Peggy had ever seen. At the moment, he was perched in
front of an old-fashioned rolltop desk in a musty corner of the big
metropolitan newspaper office, his coat off and the sleeves of his shirt
held up by a pair of elastic armbands. Outside of actors in costume and
old photographs, Peggy had never seen anyone wear armbands. But Johnny
Dwyer did, and it gave him the appearance of someone out of a
turn-of-the-century tintype. Despite his age—and Peggy guessed that he
was over seventy—Johnny Dwyer moved with a quick, catlike grace. But
when he walked, it was with the help of a cane.

On the way in to his office that morning, Peter had told Peggy a little
about Johnny Dwyer. Johnny had been a gay blade in his younger days, a
rising popular star in the New York music halls. But a tragic horseback
accident had broken his leg in three places and cut short his career as
a song-and-dance man.

The publisher of the _Chronicle_, then a new and struggling newspaper in
New York, liked Johnny, felt sorry for him, and offered him a job
keeping records for the drama department. It turned out to be a
satisfactory arrangement for both sides. Johnny moved in and stayed.

For nearly half a century he watched the American theater parade through
his bulging scrapbook and file cabinets. His memory was phenomenal and
his list of acquaintances was as wide as the theater itself. In his own
time, Johnny Dwyer had become sort of a legend, a living museum whose
memory was a storehouse of theatrical lore. If anyone needed any
information on the theater, they usually tried the public library first
and then, if they couldn’t find it there, they came to Johnny.
Sometimes, if they knew Johnny well, they didn’t even bother with the
library. According to Peter, if anybody in New York knew where Tom Agate
was, it would be Johnny Dwyer.

“Tom used to be a good friend of mine,” Johnny said, leaning back
comfortably. “Many’s the night we’ve sat around and swapped stories.”

“Used to?” Peter asked in a troubled voice. “Is he dead?”

Johnny looked at Peter shrewdly. “Some people think so.”

“Do you?” Peter obviously didn’t know what to make of this strange
reply.

Johnny stared up at the ceiling for a moment before answering. “Look
here, young fellow,” he said at last. “Tom Agate retired a long time
ago.”

“I know that,” Peter said. “But we want to find him.”

Johnny Dwyer pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Has it occurred to you that
he doesn’t want to be found?”

“Oh, come on now, Johnny,” Peter said in a pleading voice. “You know a
lot more than you’re telling us. How about a break? We don’t want to
bite the man. We just want to offer him a job.”

Johnny seemed startled. “A job? But he’s retired!”

“He’ll come out of retirement for this part,” Peter said confidently.

“Oh, it’s a play?”

Peter nodded. “A wonderful chance.”

Johnny shook his head and smiled. “Tom Agate’s heard that so many times.
Believe me, he won’t listen. He’s finished with the theater.”

“Do you know why?” Peggy asked.

“I don’t have the slightest notion,” Johnny replied blandly. Despite his
innocent expression, Peggy was almost certain the old man was lying to
Peter. “All I know,” he went on smoothly, “is that fifteen years ago,
Tom Agate told me he was quitting the stage. He didn’t give any reason
and I didn’t ask. After all, you don’t stick your nose into someone
else’s affairs.”

“Have you seen Tom lately?” Peter persisted.

“The last time I saw Tom was”—the old man cocked his head to one
side—“oh, it must have been four years ago.”

“And he’d been retired then for eleven years?”

Johnny smiled briefly. “If my arithmetic isn’t off, I guess you’re
right.”

“How was he?”

“Fine.” Johnny folded his hands and waited patiently for the next
question. Peggy suddenly felt herself caught up in a mystery she didn’t
understand. It was clear to her that Johnny Dwyer was not going to
co-operate even though he had the information Peter wanted so
desperately. She waited for the next move anxiously.

Peter leaned forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his knees.
“Johnny,” he said with quiet sincerity, “let me explain why we want to
get in touch with Tom Agate.” He proceeded to tell Johnny about
_Innocent Laughter_ and the part reserved for Tom. “It’s a wonderful
opportunity for him,” he concluded. “And, of course, I’m convinced that
Tom would be ideal in the part.”

Johnny Dwyer sat perfectly still for several seconds after Peter had
finished talking. At last he lifted himself to his feet, picked up his
cane, and walked over to the window. Peggy noticed again how tiny and
fragile he looked. “Peter, my boy,” he said finally, “I’m glad you feel
that way about Tom. It’s nice to know that somebody still remembers
him.”

“I’m sure that thousands of people all over the country remember him!”
Peter interrupted excitedly.

Johnny smiled and nodded. “Perhaps. But Tom had his reasons for leaving
when he did, and I don’t think anybody has the right to force him back.
It’s a decision he’s got to make.”

Peter got up and walked over to Johnny. “I agree with you,” he said.
“But we’re not going to force him. All I want is a chance to talk to
him. He can make up his own mind.”

The two men—one old, the other young—stood staring at each other. Johnny
Dwyer looked into Peter’s eyes as though he were trying to read his
mind, then turned away. “No,” he said. “Get somebody else.”

Peter sighed and returned to his chair. “You say you saw Tom four years
ago?”

“Mm-hm.” Johnny gave a little birdlike bob with his head.

Peter looked up abruptly. “Tell me something, Johnny. Was he happy?” The
question was sharp and unexpected. For the first time Johnny seemed
uncertain of his answer. “Or did he miss the theater?”

Johnny groped his way over to his chair and sank down. There was a
troubled expression on his face. “Yes,” he said in a very quiet voice.
“He missed the stage.” He looked over at Peggy and Peter. “You two,” he
said, “you’ve been working in the theater for how long? Two years? Four
years? Five years? Well, Tom Agate spent thirty years of his life on
stage. It was everything he knew—and almost everything he loved.”

“_Almost_ everything?” The question came almost automatically, before
Peggy had a chance to think about it. Johnny looked at her oddly. It was
the first time she had spoken during the interview.

“Don’t ask me any more,” he said. “Just leave Tom alone.”

Peter shook his head stubbornly. “Why don’t you help us give Tom a
chance to find happiness again?”

“By coming back to the theater?”

“Yes.”

“He’d never do it. I told you that.”

“Maybe he’s changed his mind.”

Johnny smiled and shook his head regretfully. Suddenly Peggy was on her
feet, talking quickly and earnestly.

“Mr. Dwyer,” she said, “we don’t want to pry into Mr. Agate’s personal
life. You said yourself no one should poke his nose into someone else’s
business. Well, I agree. But at the same time you just admitted that he
was unhappy and missed the theater. You said it was his whole life.
Sometimes, Mr. Dwyer, people need help. They need to have their eyes
opened so they can see the life they’re missing. The life that belongs
to them if only they reach out and take it. Doesn’t Mr. Agate deserve a
second chance? I—I don’t know what happened fifteen years ago. I don’t
know why he left the stage and I wouldn’t dream of asking him.”

“Then what _do_ you want to ask him?”

“I want to ask him to come back to the life he loves,” Peggy said
simply.

“I tried that myself,” Johnny said. “It didn’t work.”

Peggy pulled a chair over beside Johnny and looked into his face.
“Sometimes,” she said gently, “the wrong person does the asking.”

Johnny stared at her in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Peggy was flushed and embarrassed at what she was about to say, but she
held her ground. “We’re young,” she said as kindly as she could. “We’re
still part of the theater he misses so much. If _we_ want him back,
that’s different from....” Her voice trailed off in confusion as she
anxiously watched Johnny’s reaction.

Johnny nodded in comprehension. “Different from an old fellow like me
doing the asking. Somebody who’s through, himself. Is that what you
mean?”

“Yes,” Peggy said almost in a whisper. “Except for one thing. You’re not
through. You’ve still got your work. People need you—the newspaper needs
you. Nobody needs Tom Agate, and he probably thinks nobody wants him.”
She stood up and looked down at him. “But we want him.”

Johnny passed a hand over his face and rested his chin on the head of
his cane. Slowly his head began to nod. “You’re right,” he said at last.
“By gollies, I think you are.” He turned to Peter with an appreciative
chuckle. “You should have let her do the talking right from the start.”

“Then you’ll help us?” Peggy cried eagerly.

Johnny got up and hobbled energetically over to a pile of scrapbooks.
“I’ll do all I can,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s not going to be
much.”

“Johnny!” Peter was over beside the old man, clapping him
enthusiastically on the back.

“Take it easy, now,” Johnny protested. “Frankly, I’d give a lot to see
Tom Agate back on the stage. Remember that old song of his, ‘Kathleen
Aroon’?”

Johnny was chuckling happily now, as if he had been relieved of a great
burden of responsibility.

“Hold on.” Peter laughed. “He won’t be doing any songs in _Innocent
Laughter_. It’s a straight play.”

“What a pity,” Johnny sighed. “Did you ever hear him sing?” he asked
Peggy. “I guess not,” he said before she could answer. “You’d be too
young. But that was his theme song. He used to sing it everywhere. I
think he included it in every show he ever played.”

“How does it go?” Peggy asked.

“Like this.” Johnny turned and faced them.

  _“Why should we parted be, Kathleen Aroon,
  When thy fond heart’s with me, Kathleen Aroon?
    Come to these golden skies,
    Bright days for us may rise,
  Oh! dry those tearful eyes, Kathleen Aroon.”_

Even though Johnny sang with the thin voice of an old man, Peggy found
herself listening to every phrase. When he finished, she held out her
hands to him.

“That was beautiful,” she breathed. “I never knew that such a simple
song could be so lovely.”

Johnny smiled modestly. “You should have heard Tom do it,” he said. “It
always seemed to have a special meaning for him.”

Beside her, Peggy could feel Peter fidgeting restlessly. “Say, I’m sorry
to break this up,” he said, “but I’ve got to get back to the office. Can
we have Tom Agate’s address?”

Johnny shook his head regretfully. “That’s just the trouble. I’m afraid
he may have moved. All I’ve got is the place where he lived four years
ago.”

“But mightn’t he still be there?” Peter asked anxiously.

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. You can try.”

“Well, where is it?”

Johnny wrote out an address that Peggy recognized as a place out in the
suburbs beyond the city.

“That’s the best I can do,” Johnny said. “You can inquire there.”

“Great.” Peter took the paper and handed it over to Peggy. “That’s your
job, Sherlock Holmes. Let’s hope you find him.”

“Wait a minute,” Peggy said, grabbing Peter by the arm. “I don’t even
know what he looks like.”

“That’s easy,” Johnny said. “I’ve got a million photographs. Let me get
you one. I’ll try to get the best likeness for you.” He disappeared down
a narrow aisle of file cases. A moment later he was back, blowing the
dust from a large glossy photo. “Here,” he said, holding it out. “That’s
just about the way he looks today. It was taken during the war.”

The picture showed a rather ordinary-appearing man. At first glance
there was nothing particularly unusual about Tom Agate. But a closer
look revealed a quality of gentle, almost melancholy, humor that seemed
to dominate his face. Peggy held it out at arm’s length. “He looks so
sad,” she said. “Somehow I expected him to be gay.”

“What did you think he’d be like?” Johnny asked quietly. “A circus
clown?”

“No,” Peggy said. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Johnny said hastily. “All great clowns are sad.
Or didn’t you know that?” He took the photograph from her, slipped it
into a plain Manila envelope and returned it. “Here you are,” he said.
“And good luck to you. I hope you find him.”

Peggy tucked the envelope under her arm and extended her hand. “Thanks a
lot,” she said warmly. “We’ll let you know how we make out.”

Johnny walked them to the door of his office. “You do that,” he said.
“And when you find Tom Agate, give him my regards.” He held the door
Open. “Tell him for me that he was a fool ever to have listened to
Johnny Dwyer. Tell him—tell him that his friends are waiting for him.
It’s been too long.” He smiled and gripped their hands in farewell.


Paradise Avenue, just beyond New York City, in Astoria, stretched out in
a straight, treeless line of two-family brick houses, each set back
about thirty feet from the sidewalk. In general appearance, all the
buildings were pretty much alike, although here and there a gaily
painted front porch and cottage shutters hinted at the presence of a
more imaginative homeowner.

The street was almost deserted. But then it was nearly one-thirty. The
men were away at their jobs and the children at school. Peggy looked at
the envelope in her hand. The address read 3612 Paradise Avenue. The bus
driver had given her precise directions. This should be the 3600 block.
Peggy moved slowly down the street, searching for the first house
number. There it was—3601. That meant the house she wanted must be
diagonally across the street. Peggy trotted over, ticked off the
numbers, and stopped in front of a reddish-brown brick house. She turned
up the walk, mounted the stairs, and reached out for the bell. As she
touched it, she felt a strange sense of excitement build up inside her.
The bell echoed hollowly. Peggy pressed it a second time.

“Just a minute!” came a woman’s voice.

Peggy stepped back and waited. Then she saw that the brick wasn’t brick
at all, but some sort of imitation material. All the houses on the block
must have been built the same way. It told of a lower middle-class
neighborhood that prided itself on neatness and hoped for better times
to come.

Suddenly, without warning, the door swung open and Peggy was face to
face with a middle-aged woman who peered at her suspiciously. When she
saw her caller was a young girl, the woman opened the door a little
wider.

“Yes?” she asked.

Peggy put on her most pleasant smile and moved forward. “Good
afternoon,” she said. “I’m looking for someone. A Mr. Tom Agate. Does he
live here?”

“Agate?” The woman said. She shook her head slowly. “Nobody by that name
here.”

“I know he lived here four years ago,” Peggy said hopefully. “He was an
elderly gentleman.”

“Retired?”

Peggy’s heart leaped. “Yes. He was retired.”

The woman opened the door all the way and motioned Peggy inside. “There
_was_ a retired gentleman living with us. He rented the rear bedroom.
But his name was Anderson.”

Peggy reached for the photograph. “I wonder if you’d recognize him if
you saw his picture?”

The lady of the house nodded unhesitatingly. “Oh, yes, I’d know him.”
She squinted at the photograph, took a closer look and blinked. “Let me
get my glasses,” she said, turning away to go into the living room. “And
shut the front door. It’s getting chilly.”

Peggy did as she was told and waited for the woman’s return. The tiny
front hall was spotlessly clean and cheerily decorated with flowered
prints and a single gold-framed mirror over a mahogany console table.
Both furniture and floors were polished to a high gloss. Peggy sensed
that this was a home where everything was dusted twice a day and where
nothing was allowed to disturb a well-established routine.

“Are you a relative of Mr. Anderson’s?” The woman was back with a pair
of plain glasses perched on her nose. Peggy saw that she was wearing
soft bedroom slippers which accounted for her silent tread.

“Not exactly,” Peggy admitted. She wondered how to explain her interest.
The real story would be too complicated to tell. “I’m just a friend.
Actually,” she added hastily, “a friend of a friend. You see,” she said
with sudden inspiration, “Mr. Agate—the man I’m looking for—has had a
stroke of good fortune, and I’ve been assigned the job of finding him.”

The woman stared at Peggy with new respect. “I see,” she said solemnly.
“Then you’re a private investigator?”

“Well, sort of,” Peggy answered.

The woman leaned forward. “Did he fall into an inheritance?” she asked
in a hushed voice.

Peggy gulped and spoke in an equally quiet voice. “I’m afraid I can’t
talk about it,” she whispered.

The woman nodded conspiratorially. “I quite understand, my dear. Forgive
me for asking.”

Peggy reassured her with a smile and held out the photograph. The woman
studied it for a moment and slowly began to nod her head. “That’s the
man,” she said at last. “That’s Mr. Anderson. I always said he was a
real gentleman. Even though he did play the banjo.” She said the last
with just a trace of exasperation as though playing the banjo was far
too frivolous an occupation for a reliable person.

“Yes,” Peggy said excitedly. “That would be Mr. Agate.”

The woman shook her head sadly. “I wonder why he changed his name?” Her
expression hardened into a severe frown of disapproval. “It doesn’t
sound like the proper thing to do. I mean, it sounds as if he wanted to
hide something. I never would have let him stay here if I’d known about
that.”

“I’m sure you’re very careful,” Peggy broke in. “But—”

“This is a respectable house,” the woman said primly.

“Oh, I can see that,” Peggy assured her. “But when did Mr. Agate leave
you? And do you know where he went?”

Tom Agate’s erstwhile landlady pressed her lips together in a thin line.
“I don’t know anything about him,” she said shortly. “You just can’t
trust people these days. Why, I was saying to Maude Benson the other
day....”

Peggy realized that she was going to have to think and talk quickly in
order to get information out of the woman. “I know how you must feel,”
Peggy soothed. She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “But Mr.
Agate’s had a very sad life.”

The woman stopped and stared at Peggy with fresh interest. “Really!”

“Oh, yes,” Peggy said gravely. “He was orphaned at an early age. The
only person to take care of him was a distant cousin who tried to
disinherit him.”

The woman was clearly shocked. “No!”

“Yes. You see, Mr. Agate is the rightful heir to the Agate fortune.”
Peggy held her fingers up to her lips. “Now you mustn’t breathe this to
a soul.” The woman nodded breathlessly. “But Mr. Agate is the only son
of Henry Agate. You know,” she prompted, “_the_ Agate family. One of the
wealthiest in America.”

The woman looked at Peggy in round-eyed wonder. “Oh, yes,” she said.
“The Agates.”

“Of course, everybody’s heard of them,” Peggy said in an offhanded
manner. “And that’s why Mr. Agate didn’t like to use the name.”

The woman brightened considerably. “Isn’t that the most romantic thing
you ever heard of!” she practically crooned. “And to think that he was
living right in our house! Just wait until I tell Maude!”

“Oh, you mustn’t!” Peggy cautioned. “You promised!”

“That’s right, I did.” She patted Peggy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,
my dear, you can trust me.”

“Well, now,” Peggy went on in a more businesslike voice, “have you any
idea where we can find Mr. Agate?” She put a slight emphasis on the “we”
in order to give the woman a feeling that she was part of the search.

The woman suddenly clapped her hands together. “I just remembered
something. When Mr. Agate left here two years ago he told me where he
was going. It was a place way over in Baywater on the other side of Long
Island. I remember thinking it was rather strange to go so far off, but
then he said he wanted to live near the ocean.”

“Did he give an address?”

The woman shook her head regretfully. “No, he refused to leave any. He
said there wouldn’t be any mail. And there wasn’t.”

“Can’t you remember anything more than that?”

The woman closed her eyes. “Yes,” she said slowly. “He let the address
slip once. It was Tidewater Road, I’m sure of that.”

“And the number?”

There was a sigh. “I can’t—wait a minute. I think it was twenty-nine
hundred something Tidewater Road.” She opened her eyes eagerly. “Yes, I
know it was. It was the twenty-nine-hundred block.”

Peggy hurriedly slipped the photograph back in its envelope. “Well,
thank you very much,” she said. “You’ve been most helpful.”

“I wish I could have done more for poor Mr. Agate. He really was such a
nice gentleman.”

“If I locate him, I’ll give him your regards,” Peggy promised.

The woman danced nervously around Peggy, obviously reluctant to see her
go. “Won’t you stay for a cup of tea, my dear?”

Peggy declined as gracefully as she could. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m
going to have to get to Baywater this afternoon.”

The woman was now eager to help. “If you take the number fourteen bus
down at the end of the block, it will get you to the Long Island
Railroad Station. I’m sorry I don’t have a timetable.”

“That’s perfectly all right,” Peggy said, edging toward the door. “I’ll
be able to manage. Thank you again.” Peggy turned the handle of the
front door and stepped out on the porch.

As Peggy fled down the steps, she heard a muffled “good-by” as the door
slammed shut. That would be the woman on her way to the telephone to
tell Maude Whatever-her-name-was all about the famous Mr. Agate. Well,
let her, Peggy thought to herself with a smile. No harm in that.

She directed her footsteps to the bus stop at the corner. “Tidewater
Road,” she murmured to herself. “Not much to go on, but I’m not going to
give up now.”



                                   IX
                           The One-Eyed Giant


Paradise Avenue, with its imitation brick houses and neat garden plots,
might have had some pretensions, but Tidewater Road had none. Here the
houses were built of frame, most of them in need of a new coat of paint,
many of them badly wanting repairs. Even the streets seemed uncared for.
Scraps of old newspapers rustled in the gutters, and the pavement itself
was cracked and worn. Looking at its bleak row of buildings, Peggy felt
like catching the next train back to the city. Tom Agate couldn’t be
living here.

She had to remind herself that she had made a promise as she crossed the
street and approached the first house on the block. A child’s tricycle,
one wheel twisted awkwardly out of shape, lay on its side across the
steps. Peggy picked her way gingerly around it, crossed the porch, and
put her finger on the bell. No sound came from the house so she tried
knocking.

“Yeah?” came a thin, querulous voice, but inside the house nothing
moved.

Peggy stepped back, wondering what to do next. “Excuse me,” she called
at last. “I wonder if you could give me some information.”

“We don’t want none,” answered the same voice.

“I’m not selling anything,” Peggy replied. “I just want some help.”

There was a moment’s silence and then the shuffling of feet. A
suspicious face appeared at the door and examined Peggy narrowly. It was
an older woman, dressed in a worn housecoat with her hair up in pin
curls.

“Yeah? Whatcha want?”

Peggy fumbled at her envelope and drew out the photograph. “I’m trying
to locate somebody,” she said. “I understand that he lives in this
neighborhood, and I wonder if you know him?” She held out the picture
for inspection.

The door opened a little wider as the woman leaned down to examine the
photograph. The pin curls gave a decisive shake.

“Naw. Never saw him.”

The next instant the door was slammed shut and Peggy found herself alone
on the porch. She made her way carefully back down the steps and out to
the sidewalk. Finding Tom Agate was going to be much harder than she had
anticipated.

There was no answer at the next house. In the one following lived a
woman who spoke no English. The trail became warmer at the third house
where a woman said she thought the face looked familiar, but couldn’t
place it. The next five houses were blanks.

By now it was well after four o’clock in the afternoon. Peggy knew she
had time for only two or three more calls before taking the train back
to New York. Peter Grey had arranged to meet her at the Broadway
Drugstore on Forty-eighth Street at eight-thirty, giving her barely
enough time to get back to the city, bolt down some supper, and keep her
appointment. But the next three houses could give her no fresh
information and Peggy decided that she had had enough for one day. She
would return in the morning and finish the rest of the houses on the
block.

As she turned to retrace her footsteps to the bus stop on the corner,
her eye was caught by a bright flash of color. Four doors down from
where she stood was a house decorated with two window boxes full of fall
flowers. Peggy wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before. The house
itself was weatherworn, and like all the other houses on the block, in
need of a fresh coat of paint. But somehow it gave the impression of a
home that had been carefully tended. The porch was neat, the lawn had
been recently raked of leaves, and someone had even tried to trim the
hedges. Standing in the midst of such careless neglect, the house seemed
to sparkle with life and friendly invitation.

Before she realized it, Peggy was standing at the front door, listening
to a set of chimes peal softly at her touch. The door was opened by a
pleasant-looking woman who was drying her hands on a towel. When she saw
Peggy, her face broke into a smile of welcome.

“Come in,” she said. “You caught me washing some things in the kitchen.”

Peggy stepped into a clean, simply furnished front hall. “I’m sorry to
interrupt you,” she said. “But I’m trying to locate someone, and I
thought maybe you could help me.” Peggy displayed her photograph again
and waited for the reaction. But this time, instead of a blank stare and
a quick shake of the head, she was met with an exclamation of surprise.

“But that’s Mr. Armour!” the woman cried in a delighted voice.

“Mr. Armour?”

“Yes. He lived with us for over a year and a half.”

“You mean he’s moved?” Peggy heard the disappointment in her own voice.
Tom Agate had chosen another name.

“I’m afraid he has,” the woman said. She beckoned Peggy into the living
room. “Here, won’t you come in for a few moments? You look tired.”

“Well, yes, I am,” Peggy admitted. “I’ve been going since early this
morning.”

“Trying to find Mr. Armour?” the woman asked, sitting down in an easy
chair.

Peggy nodded as she took a chair near the door. “Yes. It’s a terribly
complicated story, but believe me, it’s important that I locate him.”

“I’ll be happy to tell you all I know,” the woman said. “A little less
than two years ago, Mr. Armour rang my front doorbell and asked if he
could rent a room. Well, I had never rented a room before, but it just
so happened that my son had recently left home.” The woman smiled shyly.
“He had just gotten married, you see.”

Peggy smiled back and nodded.

“He has a little baby girl now. Lives in upstate New York. We’ll be
going to see them for Thanksgiving.” The woman paused and laughed. “But
you don’t want to hear about that. Anyway,” she said, returning to her
story, “I told him all right and about a week later he moved in. Well,
we couldn’t have had a nicer man in our house—not even if we had picked
him ourselves. Always cheerful he was, and very quiet.”

“You say he was quiet?” Peggy interrupted. “Didn’t he ever play the
banjo?”

The woman beamed. “He certainly did. He used to play it for us in the
evenings. He was very good, you know.”

Peggy nodded. “Yes, I know. Do you remember any of the tunes he used to
play?”

“Let’s see now. Well, he played all the old favorites—Stephen Foster and
... oh, I can’t remember what-all.”

“Did he ever play ‘Kathleen Aroon’?”

“How did you know that?” the woman cried. “That was one he did all the
time. Beautiful too. Simply lovely.”

Peggy sighed. It must have been Tom Agate. She wondered if he was still
calling himself Armour. He seemed to change his name each time he moved.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

“He left us. About three months ago.”

Three months! Peggy almost groaned aloud. “Have you any idea where he
went?”

The woman shook her head slowly. “No. He didn’t leave a forwarding
address. He said there wouldn’t be any mail.”

This matched the story Peggy had heard earlier that afternoon. “He
didn’t give you any hint about where he was going?”

“No. None at all.” The woman looked at Peggy sympathetically. “I’m
sorry. I wish I could help you, but I’m afraid....”

“Do you know why he left?”

The woman paused and stared down at the floor. “I think so,” she said in
a troubled voice. “It was because he couldn’t afford to pay the rent any
more. I was perfectly willing to let him stay, but he insisted on going.
He said that he couldn’t allow himself to accept charity. I tried to
explain that his presence gave us real pleasure and that was payment
enough, but he wouldn’t listen. One day he went out and just never came
back....” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged helplessly.

“Didn’t he take his banjo with him?”

“Yes, he took that. But not very far.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a little boy in the house next door. Tommy Stanton, his name
is. Mr. Armour was very fond of Tommy. They used to spend hours
together. He even taught Tommy how to play the banjo a little, and
before he left, he gave it to him.”

Peggy passed a hand across her forehead. Every trail seemed to lead to a
dead end. Tom Agate had disappeared without a trace. Peggy finally
gathered herself together and stood up. “Thank you very much,” she said.
“I guess that just about finishes any chance of finding my friend.”

“I guess so,” the woman agreed sadly. “Unless”—she got up and put her
finger against her lips—“you want ... listen,” she whispered. “There’s
Tommy playing now.”

Peggy listened carefully and heard the sound of a banjo being plucked.
It seemed to be coming from the back yard. “Maybe Tommy knows something
about him. Would you like to ask?” the woman inquired.

“I certainly would,” Peggy said, moving toward the front door.

“Here,” cried the woman, taking her by the arm. “Come around the back
way. It’s quicker.”

Moving quietly, the woman led the way through the kitchen and out the
back door into the yard. The sound of the banjo was now loud and clear.
“Tommy!” cried the woman. “Oh, Tommy! Can you come here a minute?”

The music stopped and in a moment a small tousled head appeared over a
back fence. “Hello, Tommy,” the woman said in a friendly voice. “This
nice young lady said she wanted to meet you.”

[Illustration: _A small tousled head appeared over a back fence._]

The face above the fence gave a scowl of annoyance but held its
position. Peggy walked over and smiled. “How do you do, Tommy?” she
said. “I like the way you play the banjo.”

There was no answer to this. A pair of eyes gazed at her steadily, and
Peggy could hear the sound of a foot impatiently kicking the other side
of the fence. She decided that flattery was going to get her nowhere
with Tommy, and abandoned it for a more direct approach.

“I bet I know who taught you how to play,” she said. “It was Mr. Armour,
wasn’t it?”

The scuffing stopped and Peggy thought she detected a flash of interest.
She held out the picture to the little boy. “That’s Mr. Armour, isn’t
it?”

The boy’s eyes grew round and he nodded his head briefly. “You know Mr.
Armour?” he said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“No,” Peggy admitted. “I don’t. But I want to.”

“Why?” Tommy demanded. “You want to learn how to play?”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

Tommy nodded. “He can teach you. He can teach anybody.” He eyed her
moodily. “Even girls.”

“I bet he can,” Peggy said, wondering why all little boys seemed to have
such vast scorn where girls were concerned. “The only trouble is,” she
went on, “I don’t know where to find him. Do you know?”

The kicking on the other side of the fence started in again. Tommy
lowered his eyes and stared at Peggy’s feet. “It’s a secret,” he
muttered.

“What is?”

“Where Mr. Armour went.”

Peggy’s heart almost missed a beat. She tried to keep her voice calm.
“Can’t you tell me?”

The kicking increased to a thunderous volley. “Nope,” Tommy said
abruptly.

“Oh, please,” Peggy begged. “I want to see him so badly.”

Tommy’s lower lip stuck out as he considered Peggy’s request. “I want to
see him too,” he announced.

“Well, if you tell me where he is,” Peggy said, “maybe I can get him to
come back.”

The kicking stopped a second time as Tommy paused to appraise this new
idea. Then quite suddenly, he disappeared. For a moment Peggy thought he
had gone back into his house, but the next instant, a gate swung open
and Tommy marched into the yard, holding a banjo in one hand. He stopped
in front of Peggy and looked at her earnestly. “Honest?” he said. “You
really think you can get him to come see me?”

“I’ll try,” Peggy promised. “I’ll try as hard as I can.”

Indecision was stamped all over Tommy’s face, but in the end the desire
to see his old friend won out.

“He’s gone far away from here,” he said in a clear voice that left no
room for doubt.

“How far?”

“To a place where there are kings and queens and all sorts of magic
things. There’s a one-eyed giant there who looks after everybody and
sees to it that everybody is happy. Mr. Armour told me. He said he’d
always be happy ’cause he’d be with friends. It’s a place where
everybody lives in trunks.”

“In trunks!” Peggy exclaimed.

Tommy nodded solemnly. “That’s what he said. He told me I mustn’t miss
him too much on account of he was going to be very, very happy and
safe.”

“Did he say where this place was?”

Tommy shook his head. “Just that it’s far away.”

Peggy and the woman looked at each other blankly. Kings and queens who
lived in trunks with a one-eyed giant to guard them! It didn’t make
_any_ sense.

“When you find him,” Tommy was saying, “tell him I can play lots better
now, and I want him to come and hear me.”

“I will,” Peggy said automatically. “I’ll tell him.”

“Okay,” Tommy said with a satisfied nod. “I gotta go now.”

“All right.” Peggy held out her hand, but Tommy backed resolutely away
from it. He turned and ran for the gate. “G’by,” he called.

“Good-by,” Peggy said. The gate swung open and Tommy disappeared.

A one-eyed giant! Where on earth could Tom Agate be living? Peggy turned
thoughtfully back to the house.



                                   X
                               Tom Agate


“Honestly, Peter, that’s what he said.”

Peter Grey lowered his cup into his saucer. “Kings and queens,” he
muttered incredulously.

“And don’t forget the one-eyed giant,” Peggy reminded him.

“Don’t worry, I’m not,” Peter assured her, “but I’d rather think about
one thing at a time.”

Peggy and Peter were sitting in a back booth of the Broadway Drugstore.
Outside, the streets were comparatively empty. Half an hour earlier they
had been jammed curb to curb with honking taxicabs threading through
thousands of hurrying people on their way to an evening at the theater,
a first-run movie, or a late dinner. But by now everyone had reached his
destination. The streets off Broadway would be quiet for another two
hours. Then, as if some unseen force had released a floodgate, the big
doors to the theaters and movie palaces would swing open, and the rush
would begin all over again.

“Do you think it was all his imagination?” Peter was asking.

Peggy shook her head. “I’m sure he didn’t make it up,” she said.

“I don’t mean the boy,” Peter said. “I mean Tom.”

“Why would he do that?”

“To cheer up the little boy. To keep him from being sad about his
leaving.”

Peggy toyed with her cup of tea. “I don’t know,” she said at last.
“Maybe it all means something. Maybe Johnny Dwyer could help us.”

“Yes, but not until tomorrow morning,” Peter pointed out. “And we don’t
have that much time left.” He drummed his fingers impatiently on the
table. “We’ve got to figure it out tonight.” He pushed his coffee cup to
one side. “Let’s start at the beginning and try to put ourselves in Tom
Agate’s position. First of all, how much do we know?”

“Well,” Peggy said thoughtfully, “we know that three months ago he ran
out of money and left the house on Tidewater Road. It seems to me that
there are four possibilities.”

“All right. Let’s have them.”

“He found a job.”

Peter shook his head. “That’s not likely. All he knew was the theater.
And if he had gotten a job in show business people would have heard
about it.”

“What about some other kind of job?”

“What could he do? He was too old to be hired for a regular position.”

“Let’s not throw out that possibility yet,” Peggy cautioned. “He might
have found something like a night watchman or a caretaker.”

“Yes,” Peter admitted, “that’s true. But why did he wait so long? Why
didn’t he do it years ago before he was completely broke?”

“I don’t know. Let’s put it aside for the moment and go on to the second
possibility. He went to some member of his family.”

“Absolutely not,” Peter declared. “He didn’t have any.”

“None at all?”

“Oh, yes, he once had a wife,” Peter said. “But it didn’t work out.”

“Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t even know _who_ she is. I don’t know whether they were divorced
or not. But they parted years ago. As a matter of fact, I once heard
that there was some bitterness there, so I doubt if he’d find a warm
reception if he went back.”

“So returning to his family is out?”

“I’m afraid so. What’s your third possibility?”

“He might have gone to a friend.”

Peter considered this carefully. “Maybe,” he said at last. “But Tom
seems to be a pretty proud old codger, the kind who wouldn’t accept
charity. Besides, Johnny Dwyer was one of his closest friends, and even
he doesn’t know where he is. What’s next?”

Peggy lowered her eyes. “I—I don’t like even to think of it,” she
murmured. “But maybe....”

“Suicide?” Peter said incredulously. “Never! I’d bet anything on that.
Tom wouldn’t go out that way. He’s got too much courage.”

“Well then, where does that leave us?”

Peter leaned back in the booth and signaled the counterman for another
order. “I’d rule out two of your possibilities,” he said slowly,
“leaving us with two alternatives. Either he’s found a job or he’s gone
to live with an old friend.” Peter reached out and made room for the two
fresh cups as they were brought to the table. The counterman collected
the empties and retreated behind the rows of soda stools.

“Which one do you think it is?” Peggy asked as she stirred her tea.

Peter shrugged helplessly. “That’s the trouble,” he said moodily. “I
can’t believe that Tom has a job. My original objection still stands.
Why didn’t he get one earlier? On the other hand, he just isn’t the type
to sponge off an old friend, no matter how close they once were.”

“But, Peter,” Peggy said with a trace of a smile, “you can’t eliminate
everything. It’s got to be something.”

“I know, I know,” Peter said impatiently. “That’s the whole trouble. And
where does it all fit in with this story of kings and queens and people
living inside trunks?” He rested his elbows on the table and cupped his
chin in his hands. “I feel like a dog that’s trying to chase his tail.
I’m going round and round, but can’t quite catch it.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Peggy said suddenly. “How about combining the two
possibilities?”

“What do you mean?”

“Suppose he _is_ living with an old friend and has a job at the same
time—like taking care of the friend’s place of business at night?”

Peter looked interested. “Say,” he said admiringly, “that sounds good.
But what kind of business?”

“Something to do with—”

“Oh, no,” Peter groaned. “Not one-eyed giants, please.”

“It’s the only thing that makes any sense,” Peggy insisted.

“But what sort of business is that?” Peter complained. “A freak show
someplace?”

Before Peggy had a chance to reply, she heard her name being called out
and looked up to see a young girl on her way to their table. Peter
turned around in his seat with ill-concealed annoyance. The girl seemed
to be bubbling over with good news and was likely to stay awhile.

“Peggy!” cried the girl. “I’m so happy for you. I just heard about your
getting the part today. When do you start on tour?”

“Not for another five weeks,” Peggy replied, sliding over. “Won’t you
sit down?”

The girl shook her head. “I can’t. I’ve had such an exhausting day. But
I saw you from the street and simply had to come in and tell you how
wonderful I think it is.” She reached out and put a hand on Peter’s
shoulder as he struggled to his feet. “No, please don’t get up.” She
smiled. “I’m on my way home.”

“At least let me introduce you two,” Peggy said. “Anna, this is Peter
Grey. Peter, Anna Warwick, a friend from drama school.”

“How do you do,” Anna said. “You’re with Mr. Stalkey’s office, aren’t
you?” Without giving Peter a chance to answer, she turned back to Peggy.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such a day,” she confided. “You know I’m in
an off-Broadway company. We open in less than two weeks.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Peggy said. “Congratulations. What’s the
play?”

Anna shrugged her shoulders. “Heavens, I don’t know. It’s a new play all
in verse. They keep changing the name every other day. Anyway, it’s in
costume and has a perfectly _huge_ cast. And that’s where the trouble
comes in. They’re trying to save money, so they brought us all down to
this horrid little junk shop to rummage around for costumes. I’ve been
there all day, and I’m simply dead on my feet.”

“What’s the name of the place?” Peggy asked without much interest.

“I’m sure you know it,” Anna said breezily. “You must have passed it a
hundred times. It’s just down the street here. Syd Walsh’s Theatrical
Costumes. It’s way up on the top floor of the building. I can’t tell you
how stuffy and smelly, but, my dear, they _do_ have the most fabulous
costumes. He pried open some trunks that hadn’t been looked into for
years, I suppose, and came out with—well, with exquisite materials. I
can’t think where he got them all. They must have been—”

“Syd Walsh!” Peter almost shouted the name. “On West Forty-ninth
Street?”

Anna looked at him in surprise. “Yes,” she said. “That’s the place.”

Peter threw some money down on the table and slid out of the booth.
“Come on,” he said with mounting excitement. “Come on, Peggy. Let’s go.”

Anna blinked at him and moved aside to give Peggy room. “He’s closed
now,” she said in a mystified voice.

“I know, I know,” Peter said impatiently, grabbing Peggy by the arm.
“That’s just the right time to go.” He leaned forward and shook Anna’s
hand warmly. “Thank you. Thank you very much. I can’t tell you how much
help you’ve been. Nice meeting you. G’by.”

“Yes, but”—Anna faltered, “I haven’t done a thing.”

Peter patted her on the hand. “You just don’t know.” Taking Peggy by the
arm, he rushed her down the aisle and into the revolving doors at the
drugstore entrance. As she spun out into the street, Peggy caught a last
glimpse of Anna’s face as she sat bolt upright in the deserted booth.
Her look was one of complete bafflement.

Peter guided Peggy deftly through the traffic and started up the block
with long, loping strides.

“Peter,” Peggy cried. “What’s going on?”

“It’s Syd Walsh,” Peter explained. An expression of absolute certainty
was on his face. “Syd Walsh is another old-timer like Tom Agate and
Johnny Dwyer. But instead of being a song-and-dance man, he was a
vaudeville magician. Sydney the Great, he called himself. He retired
years ago and started a theatrical costume and prop shop.”

“But what makes you think—?” Peggy asked as she ran to keep up.

“Syd Walsh,” Peter said, “was known as the tallest man in vaudeville. He
was six foot five at least. And,” Peter added significantly, “he had
only one eye. He wore a black patch for all his performances.”

“The one-eyed giant!” Peggy breathed.

“That’s it,” Peter said. “It all fits together now. The kings and
queens—Tom was talking about Syd’s costumes.”

“And the trunks, too,” Peggy cried. “Memories in trunks! Old theatrical
costumes!”

“Right,” Peter said, as they turned the corner of Forty-ninth Street.
“Tom Agate’s got a job looking after Syd Walsh’s costume shop at night.
I’m convinced of it.”

Peter pulled to a stop in the middle of the block and scanned the
darkened buildings. “It’s right around here,” he muttered. “I remember
coming here years ago.”

“There it is!” cred Peggy, pointing to a plate-glass window on the fifth
floor of a dingy brownstone building. Across the front of the glass was
lettered: Syd Walsh’s Theatrical Costumes. The light of a street lamp
barely caught the faded sign.

Peter took her by the arm. “Come on,” he said. “In we go.”

The next instant they were standing in a cramped lobby in front of the
iron grillwork of an old-fashioned elevator. Peter reached out and
pushed the button. A bell jangled down in the elevator shaft. The old
building seemed deserted.

“How about the stairs?” For some reason, Peggy was whispering. Peter
nodded wordlessly and turned into a corridor behind the elevator.
Through the gloom of a single night light, Peggy could see stairs
leading upward.

“Take a deep breath,” Peter advised over his shoulder. “It’s on the
fifth floor.”

“I’m right behind you,” Peggy assured him.

Slowly, they made their ascent. On the second floor they passed the
bolted front door of a sporting goods manufacturer. The third floor was
occupied by a firm that specialized in trimmings for ladies’ hats. The
night light on the fourth floor was out and Peggy couldn’t read the name
on the door.

“Peter,” she whispered through the darkness, “Where are you?”

There was a shuffling step in front of her and a hand reached out for
hers. “Here,” came the answering whisper. “Just one flight more.”

About halfway up the last flight, Peggy felt Peter freeze. His hand
tightened over hers. Catching her breath, Peggy tried to peer through
the inky gloom. Then she heard the sound of a banjo being played. It
seemed to come from a great distance.

Peter advanced a few more steps, made a sharp right turn, and stopped on
a landing. In front of them a thin slit of pale yellow light illuminated
the floor. They were now standing directly in front of the door that led
to Syd Walsh’s shop. From the other side Peggy heard a soft voice
singing the tune that had recently become so familiar to her.

Moving very slowly, Peter turned the handle of the door and opened it a
crack. By crowding behind him, Peggy could see the interior of the shop.
It was a jumble of old boxes, trunks, musty figures clothed in period
costumes. Masks of all descriptions leered down from the walls, and in
one cabinet there was a shadowy row of wigs. The singing was clearer now
and Peter pushed in a little farther.

In one corner of the room, half hidden by what Peggy assumed was a
worktable, stood a white-haired old man. One leg was planted easily on a
low stool, and cradled lovingly in his arms was a banjo. The words of
his song floated quietly through the absolute stillness of the shop and
Peggy suddenly realized that she was in the presence of a true artist—a
man who could take a simple instrument and a familiar folk melody and
weave a magic spell capable of moving an entire audience.

The song whispered to its husky, haunting conclusion, and the old man
stood bowed over his instrument.

Perhaps it was Peter or maybe it was some sudden movement of hers, but
the door moved forward another inch and, through the quiet, there
suddenly rang a sharp tinkle of a bell. The old man with the banjo
straightened up and whirled around to face the intruders.

Shielding his eyes with one hand, he advanced toward the door. “Who’s
there?” he challenged. “Who is it?”



                                   XI
                           A Star Comes Back


Directly in front of her, Peggy felt Peter grow tense, then suddenly
relax as he shouldered his way into the shop. “Mr. Agate,” he called in
a reassuring voice. “It’s all right. We don’t mean any harm.”

Tom Agate stared at them in amazement. Peggy noticed that his eyes were
a bright china-blue that contrasted strongly with his fair complexion
and white hair. “How—” he began. “How did you manage...?”

“To find you?” Peter said. “Well, it wasn’t easy, but this is the young
lady who did the tracking down.” He reached around and brought Peggy up
into the light.

Tom Agate looked at both of them in turn and then slowly chuckled.
“Excuse my manners,” he said, sweeping some material from a bench. “But
I’m not used to visitors up here. I’d be interested to know how you
located me, Miss—”

“Peggy Lane,” Peggy said, holding out her hand. “And this is Peter
Grey.”

Tom Agate acknowledged the introductions and sat down on a three-legged
stool. “All right now,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone in the world
knew where I was. Except Syd, of course.”

“We didn’t know either,” Peggy said, “until a few minutes ago. You see,
this morning I went out to Paradise Avenue and talked to your old
landlady.”

“Oh, yes.” Tom nodded vigorously. “But how did you know about that?”

“Johnny Dwyer,” Peter said simply.

Tom Agate shook his head. “I thought he’d be one man with enough sense
to keep his mouth shut.”

“Don’t blame Johnny,” Peggy said. “He didn’t want to say a word.”

“Well, what made him?”

“Peggy convinced him,” Peter said with a smile.

Tom turned his blue eyes on Peggy and nodded slowly. “I imagine you can
be pretty persuasive if you want to be. But it’s still a long way from
Paradise Avenue to this place.”

“Don’t I know it,” Peggy said. “Your landlady told me you had moved.”

“She didn’t know where,” Tom said.

“No, she didn’t,” Peggy agreed. “But she seemed to remember something
about a place called Tidewater Road.”

Tom Agate shook his head ruefully. “That woman,” he said. “I never could
keep a thing from her. She had a nose built for prying into other
people’s business. So you went out to Tidewater, eh?”

Peggy nodded. “I didn’t know the address so I tried all the houses.”

“You were a brave girl,” Tom said with concern. “That’s not the best
part of town.”

“I didn’t run into any trouble,” Peggy assured him. “Anyway, finally I
came to this nice-looking house where the woman remembered you.”

“Yes, that would be Mrs. Mullins,” Tom said. He looked at Peggy sharply.
“But I was using a different name then.”

“I know,” Peggy replied. “Mr. Armour. That was how she knew you.”

Tom Agate looked puzzled. “But how did _you_ know that name?”

“I didn’t,” Peggy told him. “But I had a picture of you. Johnny Dwyer
gave it to me.”

“And you tracked me down with that?” Tom sounded incredulous.

“That’s all I had to go on.”

Tom Agate stared at the two young people in front of him and slowly
shook his head. “Well, you certainly have gone to a lot of trouble,” he
said at last. “I hope it’s been worth it to you, but I can’t imagine
what you want.”

“We want to talk to you, Mr. Agate,” Peter said.

Tom Agate crossed his legs and leaned back. “All right,” he said
amiably. “Go right ahead.”

Peggy reached forward and touched Peter on the arm. “Let me say it,” she
said. When Peter nodded briefly, Peggy stood up and shifted over to a
chair beside Tom. “Mr. Agate,” she said in a low, earnest voice, “we
want you back.”

Tom Agate looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Back where?” he
asked sharply.

“In the theater.”

For a long moment Tom Agate sat perfectly still, his face
expressionless. Then he slowly got up and moved away. When he turned to
face them, Peggy saw he was smiling. “Thank you, Miss Lane,” he said
gently. “Thanks for the compliment. But I’ve learned that in this life
you can’t go back.”

“That’s not so,” Peggy declared hotly. “You can if you want to.”

The old man looked at her tolerantly. “You may be wise for your years,
my dear. But I think I know better.”

Peggy held her ground. “No,” she said. “The point is, you’ve got to
_want_ to come back. There’s got to be some reason.”

Tom Agate shrugged. “Maybe. But you see, I don’t think I want to.”

“Why not?” demanded Peggy.

Tom frowned slightly. “You ask too many questions.”

“Oh, Mr. Agate,” Peggy said, “I don’t want to pry into your personal
life. That’s what I told Johnny Dwyer this morning. I’m sure you had a
good reason to leave the stage. But don’t you think it’s time to
reconsider?”

Tom returned to his stool. “All right, Miss Lane,” he said. “It’s my
turn to do some asking. Why do you think it’s time? Why _should_ I come
back?”

Peggy accepted the challenge. “There are two reasons,” she declared.
“First of all, you’re not happy here.” She stopped him as he started to
protest. “It won’t do you any good to deny it. You’re living in a
self-imposed exile—not because you want to, but because you think you
should. As I said before, I don’t know the reasons, but I do know that
running away is no answer.”

“Running away—” said Tom.

Peggy nodded her head firmly. “That’s what I said. Let me finish before
you start.” Tom settled back and nodded. “The second reason,” Peggy went
on, “is that you’re needed.”

“Who needs me?” Tom asked in a contemptuous voice.

“I do for one,” Peggy said. “I’m just starting out in the theater, Mr.
Agate. You know so much and I know so little. When I think of the things
you could tell me—the things you could teach me!” Peggy paused and
lowered her voice. “Let me try to explain this way. Today—this
afternoon—I met a little boy. His name is Tommy Stanton. Actually, he
was the one who led me here.”

The old man started. “Tommy!” he cried delightedly. “How is he?”

“He’s lonely,” Peggy said. “He misses you. You taught him how to play
the banjo and he loved you for it. He’s been practicing every day, Mr.
Agate, and he’s much better than he was before. He told me to tell you
that.”

“Tommy said that?”

“Yes. And he said another thing. He said that he wanted you to come back
because he wanted to play for you. He’s proud of what he’s learned, but
he needs more help. Your help.” Peggy reached out and took one of Tom
Agate’s hands in hers. “In a way, we’re like Tommy Stanton. We need you
and we want you.”

The old man sat silently, making no effort to remove his hand. “I can’t
come back with the same old routines,” he said. “People are tired of
them. They’ve heard them all a thousand times. There’s no point in
returning with the old familiar bag of tricks.”

“But you don’t have to,” Peggy cried. “There are all sorts of new things
for you to do.”

“What, for instance?”

“A play. You’ve never acted in a straight play before. Think of it! Tom
Agate in a play!”

Tom smiled wanly. “You’re very good to say all this, but I haven’t
noticed anybody beating down the doors to ask me.”

“That’s because no one has had the imagination before. But Peter has.”

“Peter?”

“Yes, Peter Grey here. He works in Oscar Stalkey’s office.”

A light seemed to flicker in the old man’s eyes.

“Oscar Stalkey,” he said with a smile. “How is the old boy? Still as
enthusiastic as ever?”

“Just the same, Mr. Agate,” Peter answered. “And he’s got a play for
you.”

Tom sat up. “Did _he_ say that?”

Peggy nodded. “Peter suggested you, and Mr. Stalkey was wild over the
idea.”

“What’s the play?”

“_Innocent Laughter._”

“_Innocent Laughter!_” Tom Agate looked at Peggy and Peter in amazement.
“But that’s a hit! I understand it’s the biggest thing this season.”

“It is,” Peggy said. “Oscar Stalkey’s forming a road company of it. I’m
to be general understudy and Peter is company manager.”

“But what sort of a part could I play?”

“Let me tell you about _Innocent Laughter_,” Peggy said, settling
herself in her chair. Tom Agate nodded agreement and for the next few
minutes, Peggy outlined the plot and the possibilities in the play.

“... so you see,” she finished at last, “the part of the grandfather is
simply made to order for you.”

“Who’s playing it now?” Tom asked. Peggy saw he was beginning to become
interested.

“Hiram Baker,” Peter said.

Tom Agate made a disgusted face. “But he’s no actor! I remember Hiram as
a youngster!”

Peter laughed. “Then prove you can do better.”

“That wouldn’t be hard,” Tom said with a chuckle. He turned to Peggy
with a smile of delight. “And you’re the understudy, eh?” Peggy nodded.
“Well, well.” He smiled. “Your first real break?”

“With a professional company—yes.”

“I’d like to hear you read sometime.”

Peggy jumped to her feet and began rummaging through her handbag. “Why
not right now!” she cried. “We can do the scene between the young girl
and her grandfather.”

“We?” Tom exclaimed.

“Well, I can’t do the scene all by myself, can I?” said Peggy, with a
quick look at Peter. “Somebody’s got to read the other lines.”

Tom laughed. “All right,” he said. “I’ll humor you. Give me the script.”

“Here,” Peter said, stepping forward. “I’ve got an extra copy. You keep
yours, Peggy.” Peter paced over to one side of the room. “Let me explain
what the set looks like. We’ll pretend that this is a door. And you’re
sitting over there by the fire....”

In a few quick words Peter sketched in the scene for Tom Agate. The old
man followed every word, nodding intermittently.

“I see,” he said at last. “Let’s try it.” He looked over at Peggy. “Are
you all set?”

Peggy nodded and said, “Start reading your lines when you hear me sigh.”
She found her place in the script and took a deep breath. The tiny
darkened shop with its strange shapes and musty odor was very quiet and,
in an odd way, relaxing. With street noises mute and far away, the room
seemed somehow warm and cozy, and Peggy approached the scene ahead with
anticipation and confidence. Quietly, she made her way through the
imaginary door, walked over to the imaginary window, and looked out. She
sighed softly.

From the other side of the room, she could hear Tom Agate turn slowly in
his chair. “‘Why did you come in so quietly?’” he read. His voice was
rich and warm. “‘You’re as furtive as a lady burglar tonight.’” Here Tom
added a note of gentle humor. “‘What’s wrong?’” The last phrase was said
perfectly, with just the right amount of concern, but not too
inquisitive.

“‘Oh,’” Peggy heard herself saying, “‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’”
That was the way! That was the way she had wanted to say it at the
audition!

“‘I’ll go if you like.’”

Suddenly the play had real meaning for Peggy. It became important for
her “grandfather” to stay. “‘Oh no!’” she cried in a voice of alarm.
Then more quietly. “‘Please don’t. There’s—there’s something I want to
talk to you about.’”

The scene continued and this time there was no one to stop them. The end
came when Peggy, as the young granddaughter, threw herself down on the
floor beside her grandfather and began to cry. To her surprise, real
tears came to her eyes.

“‘I’m sorry,’” she gulped. “‘I didn’t mean to cry.’”

Above her, Tom Agate, still in the role of the grandfather, reached down
and touched her hair. “‘There, there,’” he read. “‘A person should
always have somebody to cry with. It does the heart good. I may not be
that perfect person, but maybe I’ll do for tonight.’” Tom Agate put his
hand gently on her shoulder. “‘There, there,’” he repeated.

And that was the end of the scene.


In the breathless hush that followed, Peggy couldn’t trust herself to
speak. Even Peter, who never seemed at a loss for words, was silent. But
eventually, he put into words what they all knew.

“That was beautiful,” he said in an oddly choked voice. “Simply
beautiful. It’s the way the scene was meant to be played all the time.”
He reached down, helped Peggy to her feet, and shook Tom Agate’s hand.
“Sir,” he said earnestly, “you were magnificent.”

Tom Agate passed a hand over his face. His eyes were lighted with a shy
smile of delight. “Nothing to it,” he said. “After all, look at the help
I had.” He cocked a quizzical glance at Peter. “Do you mean to say that
this girl here”—he waved a hand at Peggy—“isn’t playing the part of the
daughter?”

“I’m afraid not,” Peter admitted. “Just the understudy.”

Tom shook his head. “What a waste!”

“It certainly is,” Peter replied. “But Oscar Stalkey thinks she needs
some more experience. And the right people to work with,” he added
significantly.

“Has he heard her read?”

“He hired her,” Peter pointed out. “He must think she’s pretty fair.”

Peggy felt it was time to interrupt. “Look here, you two,” she broke in.
“If you’re quite finished talking about me as if I weren’t here, maybe
we can get back to business.”

The two men looked at her. “What business?” Tom demanded.

“Will you try out for the part of the grandfather?”

Tom Agate smiled and walked to one corner of the room. “It’s a marvelous
part,” he said indecisively.

“And you’re marvelous in it,” Peggy insisted. “Say you’ll do it.”

Tom looked at Peter seriously. “Did Oscar say he wanted me?”

“Yes, he did,” Peter assured him.

Tom moved back across the room, walking with the easy step of someone
half his years. Peggy saw that his face was flushed and his eyes were
sparkling with an inner excitement she could only guess at.

He stopped abruptly and held out his hands to them. “All right,” he said
with unexpected forcefulness. “I’ll give it a try.”

Peggy ran over to him. “You promise?” she said. “You won’t change your
mind?”

Tom shook his head firmly. “No, Peggy. When I give my word, you can bank
on it.”

Peggy whirled and grabbed Peter by the arm. “Oh, Peter!” she cried.
“Isn’t it wonderful!” The three of them stood grinning foolishly at one
another like three mischievous children who have just invented an
especially wonderful game.

Tom Agate was the first to break away. “Well, now,” he said, picking up
the script, “might as well get to work. I’ll want to read this before
morning. When does Stalkey expect us?”

“Auditions are scheduled for ten o’clock at the Elgin Theater.”

Tom nodded with satisfaction. “Good. I’ll be there.” He looked at Peggy
anxiously. “You’ll read the part with me, won’t you? Just like tonight?”

Peggy appealed to Peter. “What do you think?” she asked.

“No problem there,” he assured them.

“Good.” Tom flipped open the script and ran his thumb down the edges of
the paper. “Incidentally,” he said, “who else is in it?”

“Emily Burckhardt is playing the grandmother,” Peter told him.

Tom beamed with pleasure. “That’s nice,” he said. “I haven’t seen Emily
for years. What about the daughter?”

“Marcy Hubbard.”

Tom shook his head. “Don’t know her.”

“She’s a newcomer. I’m afraid we’re going to lose her to Hollywood.”

“All the better,” Tom cried gaily. “Then Peggy can play the part. How
about the mother? I see she’s got a big part.”

“It _is_ a big part,” Peter admitted. “We’re centering the play around
her.”

Tom frowned. “Is that a good idea? Just from the little I’ve read, I
would have thought that the play belonged to the old woman.”

“Well, we’ve got a big name, you see,” Peter explained.

Tom nodded understandingly. “Who is it?”

“Katherine Nelson.”

The transformation in Tom came without warning. All color left him and
his face suddenly became drawn and old. “Who did you say?” he whispered
in a small, shocked voice.

“Katherine Nelson,” Peter repeated. “Why?”

It seemed an effort for Tom to breathe. The script fell from his hand as
he slowly rose to his feet. He shook his head like a drunken man. “No,”
he murmured thickly. “I—I can’t.”

Peggy stepped forward. “Can’t what?” she asked in a concerned voice.
“Are you all right?”

Tom waved her away. “I can’t be in the play,” he intoned dully. “I won’t
be there tomorrow.”

Peggy looked at him incredulously. “But you promised!” she said
accusingly.

“I don’t care,” Tom said. “Please—go away now.”

Peggy reached out and took him by the shoulder. “No,” she said urgently.
“You can’t do this. I don’t know what’s upset you, but you’ve just _got_
to be there tomorrow morning. Try and face it, whatever it is.” She gave
him a gentle shake. “For your sake as well as ours.”

The old man looked at her sadly. “My dear,” he said wistfully, “you
don’t know what you’re asking.”

“I know I don’t,” Peggy said. “But we’re depending on you.”

Tom Agate seemed to stand a little straighter even though the hurt look
still lingered in his eyes. He gazed at Peggy steadfastly and sighed.
“You remind me of someone,” he said at last. “Someone—I knew a long time
ago. Will you be there tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Peggy said quietly.

“Do you promise?”

Peggy nodded. “I promise.”

Torn seemed satisfied. “All right then,” he said. “I’ll be there. But,
please, don’t let me down.”

Peggy took her hand away. “I won’t,” she said gently. “You can trust
me.”



                                  XII
                              Tom’s Tryout


The theater the next morning seemed full of old men, all of them there
to try out for the part of the grandfather. Peggy arrived shortly before
ten o’clock, and after scanning the rows of seats for Tom Agate, sank
down in an aisle seat toward the back. Promptly at ten, Craig Claiborne
began the auditions. The same bored assistant stage manager who had read
with Peggy two days earlier took his place behind the plain table on
stage and began to read with each candidate. Fortunately, it was the
same scene Peggy had read with Tom the night before.

One after another, the old men trudged up to the stage and went through
the lines that had now become so familiar to Peggy. Some were better
than others, but all lacked the authority, the fire the part demanded.

At ten-thirty, just as Peggy was beginning to grow anxious, a tall
figure dropped into the empty seat beside her. “Has he come yet?” It was
Peter Grey and he seemed equally worried.

“No,” Peggy whispered. “Will they wait for him?”

Peter shook his head briefly. “I haven’t even told Mr. Stalkey he’s
coming. I was afraid he wouldn’t show up.”

“How much longer do we have?”

“If he’s not here in the next half hour, we’ll have to give it up.”

Peggy was suddenly struck by an idea. “Peter!” she said. “Did you give
his name to the doorman? They won’t let him in if he’s not on the list.”

Peter grinned down at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All taken care of.”

Peggy sat back and tried to concentrate on the auditions. When she saw
that the last of the actors was approaching the stage, she turned
uneasily in her seat to look toward the rear of the theater. That was
when she saw Tom standing quietly behind the curtains that separated the
inner lobby from the orchestra. Without taking her eyes off Tom, she
reached out and touched Peter on the sleeve of his jacket.

“Look,” she said in a triumphant whisper. “Look behind you, Peter. He’s
come.”

Peter swiveled in his seat, saw Tom, and leaped to his feet. “You talk
to him,” he ordered, “While I go tell Mr. Stalkey.”

Peggy slid out into the aisle and walked slowly back to Tom Agate. He
saw her coming and nodded a shy greeting. “Hello,” he said quietly.

Peggy held out her hand. “I’m glad you came.”

Tom nodded briefly. “I almost didn’t make it,” he said with a nervous
laugh. “If it hadn’t been for that promise....” He trailed off and shook
his head.

“Well, you’re here now,” Peggy said, slipping her arm through his. “Come
on and sit down. I think they’re almost ready for us.” She could feel
Tom shiver as they walked down the aisle.

“How were the auditions?” he asked, almost hopefully, it seemed to
Peggy. “Did Oscar find anyone?”

“Mr. Stalkey doesn’t take me into his confidence,” Peggy replied with a
smile, “but I don’t think so.”

Tom didn’t say a word, but hunched into a seat beside Peggy. In his lap
he held a copy of the script of _Innocent Laughter_. Down in front Peggy
saw Peter Grey leaning over Oscar Stalkey and Craig Claiborne. The three
of them seemed deep in conversation. Suddenly Oscar Stalkey gave a
little jerk of his head and came up the aisle with the quick steps Peggy
remembered so well from her interview in his office. Tom Agate
straightened in his seat, uncertain of what to do.

Oscar Stalkey settled the problem by gripping the old man’s hand warmly.
“Hello, Tom,” he said, and Peggy heard genuine affection and respect in
his tone. “How have you been keeping yourself?”

Tom struggled to his feet, a flush of pleasure creeping over his face.
“Fine, Oscar,” he answered. “Just fine. Congratulations on a fine play.”

“Thanks,” Oscar Stalkey said. “What about the part of the grandfather?
Think you’d like to play it?”

“Don’t know if I can, Oscar.”

The producer laughed. “That’s not what I heard. Peter Grey said you were
great.”

“It’s nice of him to say so,” Tom murmured.

“How about going over a scene or two for us now?” Oscar Stalkey took him
by the arm and led him toward the stage. “But first I’d like you to meet
Craig Claiborne, our director.”

Tom seemed reluctant to follow Oscar Stalkey. “There’s one favor....” he
said tentatively.

“Anything at all,” the producer declared expansively. “You name it.”

“I’d like to read the scene with Miss Lane.”

Oscar Stalkey shot a quick glance at Peggy and turned back to Tom. “Sure
thing, Tom,” he said, putting his hand on the old actor’s shoulder.
“When do you want to start?”

Tom smiled. “Might as well get it over with,” he declared. “Peggy?” he
said questioningly. “Are you ready?”

Peggy nodded and stood up. The three of them walked slowly down to the
edge of the stage where Oscar Stalkey made hurried introductions. A few
moments later, Peggy found herself back behind the door waiting for
Craig Claiborne’s cue. Two days ago she had been so frightened that she
could hardly move. But now all that had vanished. It was a calm and
confident Peggy who pushed open the door when Craig Claiborne gave the
word.

Peggy moved effortlessly through the lines, feeling every pause and
groping for exactly the right intonation on every phrase, every word.
The big theater was hushed as the white-haired veteran and the newcomer
built slowly but surely to the moving climax. But Peggy didn’t notice
any of that. Except for the small circle of light that was the playing
area, the world ceased to exist, She didn’t even stop to think that she
was playing a scene from Broadway’s biggest hit play on the stage of one
of New York’s most famous theaters. For the past few years she had
dreamed of doing this, but now that the day had arrived, she was so
caught up in the powerful emotions of acting that it never once occurred
to her that her dreams had suddenly turned into reality.

The scene slowly drew to a close as Peggy knelt beside Tom. Just as on
the night before, she could feel his hand gently stroking her hair. The
two of them held their positions for maybe half a minute and then Peggy
scrambled to her feet, wondering how things had gone. The first hint
came when she glanced over at the wings to see three or four stagehands
grouped silently beyond the ropes that operated the front curtain. Mr.
Fox, the assistant stage manager, was still sitting behind his table,
looking like a man hypnotized. No one moved.

Then from the seats out front Peggy heard someone blow his nose. The
next instant Mr. Stalkey came leaping up the steps, his eyes
suspiciously bright.

“Tom,” he said, coming directly to the point, “will you take the part?”

Tom blinked and stood up. “Are you really sure?” he asked. “Sure you
want me?”

Mr. Stalkey opened his eyes. “Want you!” he exclaimed. “Let me tell you
something. I must have seen this play a hundred times, but this morning
for the first time you’ve shown me how this scene should be played.
Let’s go up to the office and talk business.” He threw an arm around the
old man’s shoulder and started to walk him off stage.

Watching Tom Agate’s face was an experience Peggy never forgot. When she
had first seen him the night before he was a lost soul without the will
or the ability to venture far from the airless confines of Syd Walsh’s
shop. But now he looked alive and alert, like a man who had rediscovered
himself and was proud of it.

Then, suddenly, Peggy saw his body tremble and sway. For a moment she
thought he had been taken ill and made a move forward to help him. It
was then that she saw what the trouble was.

Standing in the doorway leading to the backstage area, her hands
clenched tightly together, was Katherine Nelson.

Stamped across her face was a look of such unutterable shock, mingled
with pain and fear, that for a brief moment Peggy felt sorry for her.
Then slowly the color crept back into her cheeks and she took a step
forward.

Oscar Stalkey, who seemed blissfully unaware of what was happening,
welcomed her eagerly. “You’ve just missed the greatest audition of all
time,” he said jovially. “But don’t worry, it’s a performance you’ll see
a lot of over the next few months. Katherine, I’d like you to meet Tom
Agate.”

Katherine Nelson ignored Tom completely. “What do you mean?” she said in
a voice that she was obviously controlling at great effort. “What kind
of audition?”

“Why, Tom Agate has just read for the grandfather in _Innocent
Laughter_,” explained Stalkey. “And, I might add, has got the part.”
Katherine Nelson stepped back as though she had been struck in the face.
“By the way,” he continued blandly, “do you two know each other?”

“Know each other!” Katherine Nelson breathed. She turned on Stalkey in
sudden fury. “What are you trying to do to me?” she grated. “Ruin my
career? Make a laughingstock of me?”

Oscar Stalkey looked bewildered. “Why, my dear,” he temporized, “I don’t
know what you’re talking about. And I don’t think you do either!”

“A vaudeville song-and-dance man!” Katherine Nelson said and her voice
was heavy with scorn. “A broken-down old has-been who probably can’t
even remember his lines! This is what you want to put into one of my
plays? Never!” She advanced toward Oscar Stalkey, her eyes flashing.
“Either he goes or I go! I will not play in the same company with that
man!”

Oscar Stalkey held his ground firmly, but Tom Agate cringed away. “Look,
Oscar,” he said dully, “she’s probably right. Let’s just forget about
the whole—”

“Be quiet, both of you!” the producer thundered. Peggy noticed that his
face was as flushed as Katherine Nelson’s. “Now you listen to me,
Katherine. I’m still the producer of _Innocent Laughter_ and _I_ make
the decisions about who goes into the cast and who doesn’t. Tom Agate is
perfect for the part of the grandfather. Furthermore, he’s got a name
that still has drawing power. Maybe it’s not as big a name as yours, but
it’ll do, and I’m willing to gamble on him. As for you, you’ve got a
contract. Now, if you want to break it, I’ll give you permission to go
right ahead. You can come up to the office right now and we can tear it
up together. But if you do”—Oscar Stalkey lowered his voice in
warning—“you’ll never be in another one of my shows. You know perfectly
well what _Innocent Laughter_ can do for you. You’ll have a success
again—for the first time in quite a while. And believe me, Katherine,
you _need_ a success.”

For a long moment Katherine Nelson was speechless. Finally, in a voice
that was noticeably shaking, she asked, “Is that your final word?”

“It is,” Stalkey replied firmly.

The actress swayed, caught herself, then turned to Tom Agate. “All
right,” she said in a low voice, keeping her eyes on Tom. “I’ll agree to
what you want. But only on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Katherine Nelson spoke slowly but with withering effect. “That I have
nothing to do with Tom Agate—except during rehearsals and performance.
That I won’t speak to him—look at him—or touch him. Is that understood?”

Oscar Stalkey frowned, started to say something, then changed his mind.
“Suit yourself,” he said at last. “Of course, I don’t know how Tom
feels—”

Tom, who had lowered his eyes under Katherine Nelson’s scathing attack,
straightened visibly. His face was grave and serious, but he was no
longer cowering. He seemed to have come to some sort of inner decision.
He returned Katherine Nelson’s contemptuous stare squarely.

“Very well, Katherine,” he said firmly. “You can live like that if you
like. I won’t stop you. But listen to me. Whatever you do, don’t cut
yourself off. I’ve been through it. I know what it’s like.” He lowered
his voice to a gentle whisper. “Besides, it doesn’t help.”

Katherine Nelson turned without a word and walked slowly away. Her face
was a wooden mask that hid—what? Peggy wondered.



                                  XIII
                               The Ordeal


Katherine Nelson was as good as her word. In the hectic days that
followed, she never spoke to Tom Agate unless it was absolutely
necessary. Her manner was cold, aloof, and imperious. She listened to
Craig Claiborne whenever he directed her, but seldom followed his
advice. With the older members of the cast she was icily polite, a pose
that was frequently shattered by violent outbursts of temper. As for
Peggy, Katherine Nelson studiously ignored her. Peter Grey explained it
by saying that the actress had discovered it was Peggy who was largely
responsible for Tom’s presence in the cast.

Actually, Peggy didn’t see much of Peter. Both he and Pam were too busy
with the thousands of chores that go with sending a theatrical company
on the road. The only other person in the company, aside from Pam, who
was close to Peggy’s age was Marcy Hubbard, the girl playing the part of
the young daughter. Marcy was a breath-takingly beautiful girl with a
clever sense of timing and a pleasant, friendly, off stage manner, but
Peggy never got to know her well. Marcy, very much in love and recently
engaged, spent every available spare moment with her fiancé, a quiet
young man who picked her up at the theater immediately after rehearsals.

This left only Amy, May Berriman, and Randy Brewster to talk to. Not
that they weren’t eager listeners. But because they never had a chance
to see any of the rehearsals, Peggy was forced to go into great detail
in order to answer their many questions.

“You mean to say that she _never_ speaks to him?” Amy asked one evening,
during the second week of rehearsals. They were sitting in May
Berriman’s private sitting room on the ground floor of the Gramercy
Arms. Amy, Peggy, and Randy had all been to dinner together, and when
they came back May had seen them and invited them in for coffee.

“She hardly ever speaks to anyone,” Peggy said. “I’ve never seen
anything like it.”

“Goodness,” Amy said wonderingly. “That must put a strain on things.”

“You don’t know,” Peggy answered. “It’s as if we were rehearsing a play
about the end of the world or something—not a romantic comedy that
should be full of laughs.”

“How do you get along with her?”

“Me? Like everybody else. I’ve got one tiny scene in the first act. I
come in with Marcy, who’s supposed to introduce me to her mother—that’s
Katherine Nelson. We say a few words to each other and then I go out
again.”

“How does that go?” Randy asked, balancing his cup and saucer in one
hand. “If I remember rightly you have one or two nice lines.”

“I did have, you mean,” Peggy said moodily. “Katherine Nelson insisted
on cutting them.”

May Berriman arched her eyebrows. “How did she manage that?”

“She said I wasn’t doing them right.”

“Were you?”

Peggy looked at them helplessly. “No,” she said, “I guess I wasn’t. But
I don’t think anybody could,” she added stoutly. “You see, when I come
on to meet the mother, Katherine Nelson doesn’t even look at me.”

“Where _does_ she look?” Amy demanded.

Peggy touched her right ear. “She keeps staring at a spot just about
here. Her face never changes expression, and her eyes look positively
glassy. Now, how can you react to someone like that?”

“It sounds as though she were some sort of mechanical doll,” Randy said.

“That’s exactly it!” Peggy cried. “We’re all mechanical people. We go
through the right motions and say the right words, but it’s all so
stiff—without any life or warmth.”

“Even Tom Agate?” May asked.

Peggy’s face softened. “No,” she said quietly. “He’s wonderful. I don’t
know how he does it. He’s the only one with any spark to his
performance. It’s a joy to see him come out on stage.” She shook her
head wonderingly. “I think that man could act with a stone statue.”


In Oscar Stalkey’s office, two men were pacing back and forth
restlessly. One of them was Stalkey himself, but then he always paced.
The other was Craig Claiborne, who was usually relaxed and easygoing.
The director threw out an impatient hand. “It just won’t work, Oscar!”
he said. “I’ve tried everything, but that woman stiffens them all up
like blocks of ice. She won’t do a thing I tell her, and as a result,
this so-called comedy we’re about to take out on the road sounds like a
dramatized version of an obituary column.”

“Now, now,” Oscar Stalkey soothed. “It can’t be as bad as all that.” But
his face looked drawn, worried.

“Come on, Oscar,” Claiborne said. “You know it is.”

Oscar Stalkey sighed heavily. “Maybe it’ll get better,” he said
hopefully. “You know, with opening night and all, there’s bound to be
some excitement.”

The director shook his head with stark finality. “Opening night is just
around the corner,” he said, “and they’re getting worse. Every last one
of them. Except,” he added hastily, “Tom Agate. What a remarkable old
man!”


“Three weeks in Baltimore!” Peter looked up from the pile of papers on
his desk and laughed bitterly. “We’ll be lucky to last three nights!”

At the other end of the office Pam Mundy’s fingers kept up a steady
tattoo over the keys of her typewriter. She didn’t bother to answer. She
knew he was right.


Oscar Stalkey didn’t quite know how to begin. He prowled uncertainly
along the bookcases lining one side of his office, trying to keep his
temper in check and his voice low. Sitting in the most comfortable chair
in the room, Katherine Nelson watched him steadily and waited for him to
speak.

At last he asked the question that had been preying on his mind for the
past two weeks. “Why?” he said simply. “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?” Katherine Nelson inquired innocently.

Stalkey gave an exasperated shake of his head. “You know perfectly well.
The play’s going to pieces.”

She crossed her legs and returned his pleading stare with a bland smile.
“Are you suggesting it’s my fault?” she asked.

“Of course I am!” the producer exploded. “Whose fault d’you think it
is?”

“Now that’s very interesting,” the actress said coolly. “Supposing we go
over my so-called shortcomings. First of all, have I ever missed a
rehearsal—or even been late for one?”

“No,” Stalkey admitted uncomfortably. “But—”

“Let me finish,” Katherine Nelson insisted. “There’s been no trouble
with my lines. I know them perfectly. Now, I admit I’ve had some
disagreements with Craig Claiborne. He’s wanted me to do some things I
don’t like.”

“And so you didn’t,” Stalkey concluded gloomily.

“No, I didn’t,” Katherine Nelson said cheerfully. “But why should I
follow his orders like a robot? After all, I’ve had thirty years of
experience in the theater. I’m an established star. Surely I’ve got some
right to express myself in my own way. Be reasonable, Oscar.”

“Well, what about the other people in the cast? You treat them like
dirt.”

Katherine Nelson looked shocked. “I do not,” she declared. “I haven’t
said a word to them.”

“That’s the whole trouble. You completely ignore them.”

The actress looked pained. She leaned forward in her chair and spoke
intensely. “I’m a professional, Oscar. The theater is my business. I
don’t go to rehearsals to socialize or have a good time. I’m there to
work. And I expect others to do the same.”

Oscar Stalkey threw up his hands. “Have it your own way, Katherine, but
something’s all wrong. I know it and so do you. You’re not the only
professional in the cast. Emily Burckhardt’s been in the theater as long
as you have and she’s upset.”

“Poor Emily,” Katherine Nelson said sweetly. “Her trouble is that she’s
got to play so many scenes with that horrible man.”

Stalkey glanced at her shrewdly. “Tom Agate?”

Katherine Nelson didn’t answer. She smiled instead.


“... Oh, it all _sounds_ reasonable enough,” Stalkey said later that
day. He and Craig Claiborne were having a conference after rehearsal.
“She claims she has her own way of working, and that she’s building up
to a performance. She’s terribly, terribly sorry that the others are
having such a hard time, but it’s not her fault.” The producer’s voice
was heavy with sarcasm.

Craig Claiborne was more direct. He only said one word.

“Nuts.”


“I’ve seen it happen before,” May said thoughtfully. They were entering
the third week of rehearsals, and Peggy had made it a habit to report to
May every night. The older woman’s advice was usually sympathetic and
helpful. “I can see her little game just as clearly as if it were
written on the wall.”

“But what is it?” Peggy asked. “I’ve never known anything like this
before. Honestly, it’s gotten so I _hate_ to go to rehearsals in the
morning. The atmosphere in that theater is simply loaded with
bitterness. Everybody’s on edge.”

“Except Katherine Nelson. I bet she’s all sweetness and light.”

Peggy looked at her in astonishment. “How did you know that?”

May smiled. “I told you. I know what she’s up to. Look, Peggy, she wants
to get rid of Tom Agate, and she doesn’t care whom she hurts in the
process. She’s deliberately throwing everybody off balance by giving a
technically perfect but cold performance. You just wait until opening
night, though. Because of the way she’s been acting, everyone in the
cast will have a terrible case of first-night jitters. But not our girl.
Not Katherine Nelson. That night, she’ll open up and play the part with
everything she’s got. The result?” May smiled bitterly. “She’ll be the
heroine of the hour. Then she can go up to Oscar Stalkey and say, ‘See,
I told you so. I was fine. It’s the others that are bad.’ And he’ll have
to listen to her because she’ll be speaking from a position of
strength.”

“But what good will that do?” Peggy asked.

“She’ll put on pressure to fire Tom Agate. And Oscar Stalkey will have
to do it, too. Reluctantly, he’ll ask for Tom’s resignation.”

“But Tom’s so good,” Peggy protested. “He’s the only one in the cast who
isn’t being affected by her.”

May shook her doubtfully. “He’s only human,” she said. “I’m afraid the
strain is going to show.”


May was right. Tom began to fall to pieces during the next rehearsal.
Where he had once been alive and vital, he now read his lines unevenly,
in a lackluster mumble. In the second act, he completely forgot one of
his lines, and in the third act he forgot to come in on his entrance.
That was when Craig Claiborne lost his temper and bawled him out in
front of the other members of the cast. During the tirade, Peggy stole a
glance at Katherine Nelson. The actress was standing perfectly still, an
unholy gleam in her eyes.



                                  XIV
                               The Secret


Craig Claiborne was slumped deep in the easy chair in Oscar Stalkey’s
office. A look of troubled guilt was stamped across his face. “I
apologized later,” he was saying to the producer, who for once was not
pacing. He was sitting across from his director, chewing nervously on
the stump of a cold cigar, looking haggard and careworn.

“What did he say?” Stalkey asked.

“He mumbled something about its all being his fault and shuffled out.”

“Where did he go?”

“How the devil should I know? I’m not his nurse.” Claiborne passed a
weary hand over his forehead. “I’m sorry, Oscar. I didn’t mean to snap
at you. But this thing’s got us all to the breaking point.” He paused
and looked at the producer steadily. “Have you thought of asking for
Katherine Nelson’s resignation?”

Stalkey removed the cigar from his mouth. “On what grounds?” he shot
back. “Yes, I’ve hinted at it,” he added morosely. “But she laughed at
me. She said she’d never resign.”

“Did you threaten to fire her?”

“I didn’t have to. She told me that if I tried to get rid of her she’d
raise such a fuss the show would never open.”

“But that’s all bluff.”

Stalkey sighed. “Maybe. But she threatened to sue me and drag the whole
thing into court.”

“But—I don’t understand her attitude.”

“Neither do I!” Stalkey said. “I don’t know what she hopes to
accomplish. It won’t do her any good to have the play flop.” The
producer changed the subject abruptly. “What about Tom? Do you think
he’ll be back?”

Claiborne shook his head. “We’ll see.”


It was nearly a quarter of three and Tom Agate still hadn’t appeared.
Their nerves frayed and their tempers short, the rest of the cast went
through some scenes where Tom wasn’t needed. Finally, just a few minutes
before the hour, the back doors of the theater opened and Tom came
striding purposefully down the aisle. On stage, the cast members greeted
his arrival with smiles of relief. All except Katherine Nelson. She drew
in her breath sharply, marched over to a chair, and sat down
forbiddingly.

“Sorry I’m late,” Tom apologized. “But the train broke down.”

“That’s no excuse,” came a cold, hard voice. “You’ve kept us waiting for
nearly an hour. If you don’t have more of a sense of responsibility than
that, you should get out!”

In the silence that followed, Tom went up to Katherine Nelson and looked
down at her. An expression of sorrow, mingled with pity, crossed his
face. “It won’t work, Katherine,” he said softly. “I’m in this to the
finish.” He turned away abruptly and signaled Craig Claiborne. “I’m
ready whenever you are.”

“All right,” Craig announced. “We’ll do the scene between the
grandfather and the daughter. Marcy! Let’s go!”

Peggy, who had come to look upon this scene almost as her private
property, stood in the wings and watched it unfold. She had seen it so
many times before, knew every line of dialogue and every movement, but
she still loved it.

As soon as Tom came on stage, it was evident that he had regained the
confidence that he had lost yesterday. His rich, deep voice colored the
empty theater, making it glow with warmth and life. Peggy smiled to
herself and settled down to watch. It soon became clear that this was
the finest performance Tom had given yet. It was almost as if he wanted
to make up for the day before. Everyone in the theater stood engrossed
as the two actors went through their scene.

Halfway through the scene, Peggy suddenly realized she wasn’t alone.
Standing a few feet away from her, half hidden by the backstage gloom,
was Katherine Nelson. Her eyes never left Tom Agate, and as Peggy
watched, the older actress’s face softened in an infinitely sad and
tender half-smile. Peggy had never seen her look like that before. She
was almost in tears. Then, abruptly, Katherine Nelson turned and moved
quickly out of sight to her dressing room. Peggy thought she heard a
stifled sob.

The young girl stared after her with a puzzled frown. “Now what,” she
murmured to herself, “do you suppose that means?”


“I went to see Tommy today,” Tom was saying to Peggy later that
afternoon. They were standing in the little alley behind the theater,
taking a quick breath of fresh air before going back to rehearsal.

“Tommy?” Peggy asked, trying to place the name.

“You remember,” Tom said. “Tommy Stanton. Out on Tidewater Road. You
were the one who told me that he wanted to see me again.”

Peggy brightened. “Oh, Tommy! Of course. Was he glad you came?”

Tom Agate smiled, obviously pleased by what had happened. “Yes, I think
he was. He played me some of our old songs on the banjo, and I gave him
another lesson.”

“He must have been surprised.”

“That’s a funny thing. He wasn’t. He was certain I’d be out soon,
because you had promised it. He said he never gave up knowing that I’d
be back.” Tom shook his head in wonder. “That little boy taught me an
important lesson. You know, I was ready to give up yesterday. I wanted
to quit the company.” When Peggy didn’t say anything, Tom went on. “Yes,
I thought there wasn’t any use in going on. What was the point? But
Tommy gave me back the faith I’d lost. I don’t know where he gets so
much courage. He doesn’t have a very happy life.”

“I didn’t know that,” Peggy said. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s alone so much of the time,” Tom explained. “The family’s terribly
poor, and both his mother and father go out to work all day. They don’t
want him out on the street and there isn’t much to do alone in the
house. That’s why he loves the banjo so much. It gives him an interest.”
Tom laughed. “You know, he wanted to come away with me. He said he was
going to visit me sometime and see all the kings and queens. He was
especially eager to meet the one-eyed giant.”

“I’m sure he was.” Peggy laughed. “What did you say?”

“I told him it was a long way off and not to try. But he said he didn’t
care. He knew where it was.”

“I wonder what he meant by that?”

“I don’t know. When we said good-by, he told me not to be lonely.
Imagine! Him telling that to me. He said he’d see me soon—after he
learned the new song I’d taught him.”

The two of them stood quietly in the dingy alleyway, wrapped in their
private thoughts. Peggy drew her coat up around her neck. Fall had
turned to winter, and there was just a hint of snow in the air.


Emily Burckhardt resigned the next afternoon. Surprisingly, Oscar
Stalkey accepted her decision without protest. “I can’t blame you,
Emily,” he told her.

“That woman is just impossible,” Emily said. She stated it as a fact,
simply and without rancor. “If you don’t get her out of the play, you
might as well not bother sending it out on tour.”

Oscar Stalkey nodded. “I know. But I’m going to give her another two
days. Things might work themselves out by that time.”

Emily Burckhardt looked doubtful but kept silent. “Have you any thoughts
about my replacement?” she asked.

“Yes, I am considering Enid Partridge. She’s free and I think she’d do a
nice job.”

Emily nodded in agreement. “Good choice.” She extended her hand. “Again,
let me tell you how sorry I am about leaving, but you know how it is.”

“Just a minute, Emily. Do you like the part of the grandmother? I mean
if it wasn’t for the other thing....”

“I love it,” Emily said with a shrug. “I would have enjoyed playing it.”

Stalkey smiled. “Well then, it’s not all bad news, anyway.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“The present company—the one that’s in New York now—has been booked to
open in London. Paula Howard doesn’t want to leave the country. She’s
doing a fine job as the grandmother here, but doesn’t think she’s up to
making the trip. She wants to resign the part.”

Emily brightened considerably. “And you want me to take her place?” she
asked.

Stalkey nodded. “What about it?”

Emily nodded her head emphatically. “When do we leave?”

“Not for another six months. Although Paula wants out right away. Do you
think you could take over in two weeks, say?”

“I could take over right now,” Emily declared.

Oscar Stalkey sighed. “Good. At least that’s one thing off my mind.”

“Tell me something, Oscar,” Emily asked curiously. “The New York company
is scheduled to go to London in six months. How are you planning to
replace them here?”

“I had thought of bringing in the Chicago road company. But now”—Oscar
Stalkey shook his head darkly—“I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge
later.”

“There’s one more thing you ought to know,” Emily said. “Marcy Hubbard
is thinking of quitting.”

Oscar Stalkey drew a deep breath. “Did she tell you that?”

Emily nodded. “She thinks it would be bad for her career to open in a
play that’s as bad as this.”

“Oh, she does, does she?” the producer said grimly.

“Don’t blame her, Oscar,” Emily urged. “Besides, she’s had a very
attractive offer from Hollywood.”

Oscar Stalkey sighed. “Let her go, if she wants to. That’s one problem
I’m not worried about. I know who’ll take her part.”

“Who?”

“Peggy Lane.”


Stalkey made the announcement of Emily Burckhardt’s resignation late
that afternoon. The cast was shocked by the news and sat in numbed
surprise. After that, Craig Claiborne excused them and posted a notice
for ten o’clock the following morning. Slowly, everyone left the
theater, struggling into heavy coats as they prepared to face a swirling
snowstorm that had struck New York about noon that day.

Peggy didn’t leave the theater at once. She hunched in one of the seats
of the auditorium, thinking about the past three and a half weeks. It
seemed impossible that they would be opening in ten days. Half her life
she had been looking forward to the day when she would be rehearsing a
play with a professional company. She had imagined the fun of working
together, the excitement of the big night approaching. But instead of
what her imagination had led her to expect, she was left with an empty
feeling of hopeless frustration. She realized with sudden clarity that
she didn’t care _when_ the play opened. It all seemed so pointless.

She sighed, struggled wearily to her feet, and walked aimlessly down the
aisle and on up to the stage. There was no sense in staying here. She’d
go home and talk to May. She turned the corner to go backstage, then
stopped abruptly.

There was a light on in Katherine Nelson’s dressing room. The door was
ajar, and from where Peggy stood she could see the star sitting in front
of her make-up table, her head buried in her hands. As Peggy watched,
Katherine Nelson drew her hands from her face and stared at her
reflection in the mirror. Peggy saw that she had been crying.

It was an embarrassing moment. Peggy didn’t know whether to make her
presence known or remain hidden in the shadows of the darkened stage. As
she hesitated in momentary indecision, the heavy iron stage door leading
to the street banged open, and for a second or two winter roared into
the theater. The door clanged shut and footsteps shuffled up the
passageway. In her dressing room, Katherine Nelson jumped to her feet
and came out into the backstage area. “Who’s there?” she cried sharply.

“It’s all right, miss,” came a voice.

The next instant Peggy saw a large, craggy policeman step into the
circle of light. With one hand he brushed away the snow clinging to his
uniform. His other hand clutched a small boy, who seemed to be staring
around in expectant wonder. Peggy recognized the little boy at once. It
was Tommy Stanton.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the policeman said, touching his hat. “But where
would I find a Mr. Armour?”

[Illustration: _With one hand, the policeman clutched a small boy._]

“Mr. Armour?” Katherine Nelson answered vacantly. “Nobody by that name
here.”

The policeman bent down and addressed his charge. “You see, son?” he
asked kindly. “You must have made a mistake.”

“No, sir,” the boy said in a clear, emphatic voice, “I know him.” He
looked at Katherine Nelson curiously. “Are you one of the queens?” he
asked.

Katherine Nelson frowned. “Queens? What’s this all about?”

The policeman shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Well, it’s this way,
ma’am. I found this little fellow wandering around Times Square all
alone. He told me he lives all the way out on Long Island, and I can’t
imagine how he got here by himself. Anyway, he did, and I was going to
take him over to the stationhouse, but he won’t tell me his name until
he sees this friend of his.” The policeman fished in his pocket and came
up with a ragged newspaper clipping. “Do you know who this is?” He
showed her the scrap of paper. “The boy seems to know him as Mr. Armour,
even though the name under the picture is Tom Agate.”

Peggy saw Katherine Nelson start. She looked down at Tommy Stanton and
then back at the photograph. “What made you come here?” she asked the
officer.

“The piece in the paper here,” he said, pointing it out with a stubby
finger. “It said that Mr. Agate—or Mr. Armour or whatever his name is—is
rehearsing at the Elgin Theater. The boy is full of some kind of story
about a secret place with one-eyed giants. I couldn’t make any sense out
of that, so I decided to give the theater a try since it wasn’t much out
of our way.”

Katherine Nelson took the newspaper clipping from the policeman and
leaned down beside Tommy. “Will you tell me your name?” she asked.

“Tommy,” came the prompt reply.

“Well, Tommy, you see this picture here?” She showed him the picture.
“Where did you get it?”

“I tore it out of the paper. Can I see him, please?”

“What do you want to see him about?”

“I learned the piece he taught me the other day,” Tommy said simply.
Then, for the first time, Peggy realized he was carrying the banjo that
Tom had given him. The little boy held it out proudly. “Would you like
me to play it for you?”

When Katherine Nelson saw the instrument, she gasped and stepped back a
pace. The policeman threw out a hand to support her. “Are you all right,
ma’am?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes,” the actress assured him. “I’m all right.” She returned to Tommy.
“Do you like Mr. Armour?” she asked.

The look on the boy’s face was all the answer she needed.

“He’s—” Tommy struggled to express himself. “He’s my very best friend in
the world.” Unexpectedly, his face began to cloud. “Couldn’t I please
see him now?” he begged. “Please?”

“He’s had a hard day, ma’am,” the policeman murmured. “I expect he’s
pretty cold and hungry. If this Mr. Armour isn’t here, I think I’d
better get the boy to the station house and start checking with Missing
Persons.”

“No, don’t!” Katherine Nelson cried sharply. “I know where he is. I’ll
take the boy to him.”

“I’m afraid I can’t just leave him with you, ma’am,” the policeman
explained apologetically. “I don’t even know who you are.”

The actress stepped closer to the policeman. “Don’t you recognize me?”
she said. “I’m Katherine Nelson.”

The policeman’s eyes widened. “Oh, beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”

Katherine Nelson reached out gently for Tommy’s hand. “He’s come to the
right place,” she said, a soft smile stealing over her face. “I’ll take
him to Mr. Armour, and I’ll assume responsibility.”

The policeman seemed relieved. “Then you know Mr. Armour?”

“Oh, yes—” Katherine Nelson paused, and then said, in a voice that was
barely audible to Peggy, “You see, Mr.—Armour is—is my husband.”



                                   XV
                          “Curtain Going Up!”


“... It isn’t a very pretty story,” Katherine Nelson was saying. It was
a little after ten the following morning. Members of the cast, Oscar
Stalkey, Craig Claiborne, Peter Grey, and Pam Mundy were all sitting on
stage. They had reported, expecting a rehearsal, but had been met
instead by the producer who told them that Katherine Nelson had an
announcement to make. Peggy, who had slipped out of the theater the
night before without being seen, was curled up in a chair on the side of
the stage, waiting breathlessly for what she knew was coming.

“You see,” Katherine Nelson went on with a curious half-smile, “Tom
Agate and I were married.” She waited patiently for the buzz of
excitement to die down. “As a matter of fact,” she added, “we still are.
But we’ve been separated for many years now. And I’m afraid it’s been my
fault.”

“Now wait a minute,” Tom interrupted, reaching out for her hand. He was
sitting beside her, looking younger and fresher than Peggy had ever seen
him. “It’s no good your taking all the blame.” He turned to his fellow
cast members and began speaking in a low tone.

“When Katherine and I were married,” he said, “we were very
young—Katherine was only sixteen—very much in love and very happy. The
whole world seemed to be made especially for us. I was doing well as a
star in vaudeville and the future looked good.

“Eventually,” he went on, “we had a little girl. She went wherever we
did. You’ve all read stories about how, in the days of vaudeville,
people used to play one-night stands across the country. Well, it’s
perfectly true. That’s exactly what we did. And we took our little
girl—Kathy, we called her—everywhere we went.”

He paused, cleared his throat and went on:

“I guess Kathy wasn’t too strong, and that kind of life was bad for her.
In any event, she died when she was two years old.” He said this last
quickly, as if he didn’t want to dwell on it. “We were both pretty
upset,” he said, staring fixedly at the row of darkened footlights in
front of him, “and I suppose we both lost our heads.”

“That’s not quite true.” Katherine Nelson took up the story. “What
really happened was that I blamed Tom for Kathy’s death. Oh, I know it
was foolish of me. But I felt there _had_ to be some reason for her
going like that. I couldn’t bear to think that it just happened. And so
I talked myself into believing that it was all Tom’s fault.” The actress
took a deep breath. “We parted. Tom kept on in vaudeville and I—well, I
went home to my father. But when he died, the theater was the only thing
I knew, so I started to act. It had been ten years. I hadn’t kept in
touch with anyone. No one remembered me. Vaudeville was dying, so I
tried serious acting. You know the rest.”

“I went ahead doing the same things I’d always done,” Tom explained. “I
kept thinking Katherine would come back to me and I wanted to be in a
position to take care of her. Vaudeville was on the way out, so I tried
the movies and radio. As long as I had the hope that Katherine might
need me, I kept working.

“Then fifteen years after she left me, she suddenly was a star herself.
I left the theater then—but not for long. The servicemen needed me
during World War II. After the war, nobody needed me—until Peggy said
she did. And I saw that Katherine did too.”

Katherine Nelson shook her head. “I’d lost track of Tom completely. I
never expected to see him again. Then, when he showed up in this cast,
all the old memories—the old hatred and pain—came back. At first, I
couldn’t face even seeing him. I still blamed him, you see, and I
refused to forget.”

She straightened her shoulders and looked for a long minute at all of
them. “I’m afraid I was pretty unpleasant. I thought to myself, I must
get rid of that man! And so I tried every way I knew how to force Oscar
Stalkey to fire him. When that didn’t work, I tried to shame Tom into
going away of his own accord.” She turned to him with a questioning
glance. “I still don’t know how you found the courage to stick it out. I
was so cruel.”

Tom smiled gently. “I knew you were miserable,” he told her. “Wrapped up
in the same kind of misery that I had created for myself. I wanted to
show you a way out. I thought that if I stayed you’d see that all this
unhappiness was of your own making.”

“And I _did_ see it,” Katherine Nelson said. “I saw it a hundred times
every day, but each time I shut my eyes deliberately. It wasn’t until I
met a little boy who had come to see Tom—a little boy who told me what
Tom meant to him—that I finally realized what I had done to myself—and
all of you. I want to say to every one of you, I’m sorry. And if it’s
not too late, I’d like to start rehearsals today, really working
together.”

There was a silence. Finally, Oscar Stalkey stood up. “Last night,” he
said, “Tom Agate and Katherine Nelson came to see me. We had quite a
talk. Among other things, we discussed what’s wrong with the way we’re
doing _Innocent Laughter_. The main point we agreed upon is this. We’ve
been putting too much emphasis on the part of the mother. Actually, the
center of action lies with the older woman, the grandmother.” He paused
and clasped his hands behind his back. “I asked Katherine if she would
play that part and her answer was yes. That means we’ll have to get a
replacement for the mother, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.

“Meanwhile, there’s another thing. Marcy Hubbard has left the cast.” He
grinned at them cheerfully. “All in all, I think you’ll admit it was
quite a night. She asked to be relieved of her contract because she said
she had a very attractive offer from Hollywood. I was more than happy to
do what she asked because filling in for Marcy was no trouble at all.”
He turned to Peggy with a smile. “Peggy,” he announced, “you’ll be
playing the part of the young daughter in _Innocent Laughter_.”


There were telegrams from her family, from May and Amy and Randy. There
were flowers from Oscar Stalkey and Peter, and a large bottle of perfume
from Craig Claiborne. And then, there was the audience. Standing in the
wings amid the bustling confusion of stagehands and electricians, Peggy
could hear them file into the theater. Muffled sounds of conversation
and an occasional laugh filtered through the heavy curtain.

“Five minutes,” came Mr. Fox’s insistent voice. “Curtain in five
minutes.” He hurried away on some mysterious errand.

Peggy leaned her head against the backstage wall. She was tired but
exhilarated. The past ten days had been the most wonderful of her life.
Even the confusion and the discomfort of the trip to Baltimore had been
fun. This was the theater as she had always dreamed it, and she was
about to step on stage in the most important role of her life.

“Places everyone, please. Clear the stage.” Mr. Fox’s voice was quiet,
but it carried a ring of authority. “Places for the first act.” He
paused briefly beside Peggy. “You okay?” he asked. “Everything all
right?” Peggy nodded. “Good.” Mr. Fox grunted. “I hope you break a leg,”
he said and disappeared.

Peggy smiled to herself. She hadn’t heard that for quite a while. In the
theater it was considered a bad omen to wish an actor good luck, and so,
instead, you told him you hoped something awful would happen to him. Out
in front there was an excited buzz as the house lights flickered their
warning.

Then, suddenly, out of the darkness beside her, a voice spoke softly.
“Hello, Peggy.” It was Katherine Nelson.

Peggy turned and smiled. “Hello, Miss Nelson.” She saw Tom standing
beside his wife.

“We don’t have much time,” the actress said to Peggy. “But before we go
on, I want to tell you how much we appreciate everything you did. Tom
and I know that you were the one who really brought us back together.”

“I’m sure you didn’t know what you were doing,” Tom said. “But that’s
the way it turned out.”

“I’m glad,” Peggy said simply. “I’m glad for you both.”

“There’s another thing I have to thank you for,” Katherine Nelson said.
“Somehow tonight—with Tom—I feel that I’m about to start my career all
over again.” She paused and shook her head. “No, that’s not quite it.
It’s that I’m about to begin a new phase—a new life for myself....”

“And for me,” Tom said softly.

Before Peggy could answer, Mr. Fox was back. “Curtain going up,” he
whispered urgently. “Quiet, _please_!”

Katherine Nelson detached herself from the shadows, straightened her
skirt, and stepped up for her entrance. She turned and looked at Peggy
and Tom, gave them a quick wink, and pushed open the door. The applause
in the theater thundered out when the audience recognized her.

Peggy hardly remembered the first act. Her lines came automatically and
she was too excited to know whether it was going well or badly. By the
second act, that feeling had passed and she was beginning to wonder. Her
big scene—the one with Tom—was coming up, and as she took her position
behind the familiar door, she had the same sensation of nervous fear she
had had the day she first tried out for Craig Claiborne.

The lights dimmed and Peggy knew it was time. With a trembling hand she
pushed open the door and looked out over the semi-darkened stage. A lone
figure was slumped in the chair by the fireplace. Peggy tip-toed into
the room, went over to the window, looked out and sighed.

“‘Why did you come in so quietly?’” Tom said. “‘You’re as furtive as a
lady burglar tonight. What’s wrong?’”

“‘Oh!’” Peggy gasped. “‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’”

“‘I’ll go if you like,’” came Tom’s reply.

Peggy moved over to him. “‘Oh, no! Please don’t! There’s—there’s
something I want to talk to you about....’”

Suddenly all the nervousness, the worry, vanished. It was all right.
Peggy could feel it and, even more important, she knew the audience
could feel it too.

Completely poised, she sat down on the little footstool beside Tom and
stared into his face. He was smiling at her. It was a good smile—strong,
yet gentle.

Peggy met his gaze and smiled back. This was the moment she had always
known would come. She was glad it had come with Tom Agate.

                       [Illustration: Endpapers]


                       [Illustration: Back cover]



                           PEGGY ON THE ROAD


Professional temperament and backstage jealousy confront young Peggy
Lane when she lands a bit part in the road company of the hit comedy,
_Innocent Laughter_. Elated over winning the role, the aspiring actress
quickly learns that a good play does not necessarily spell success. It
takes good people too!

She aids in the search for a character actor to play the male lead,
feeling triumphant when she locates Tom Agate, beloved but retired
vaudeville trouper, who reluctantly consents to audition. But Katherine
Nelson, the _prima donna_ who is to star in the show, throws a temper
tantrum, claiming it beneath her dignity to play with a “has-been”
comedian, and demanding both Peggy and Tom Agate be thrown out of the
show!

The young girl, who all her life has dreamed of her professional debut,
is demoralized as she realizes that theatrical rivalry can stifle the
joy of creativity.

But she believes in Tom Agate, and her faith is vindicated when she
unravels a theatrical mystery which explains the conduct of the arrogant
star!


                      _Peggy Lane Theater Stories_

                        Peggy Finds the Theater
                        Peggy Plays Off-Broadway
                          Peggy Goes Straw Hat
                           Peggy on the Road



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public
  domain in the country of publication.

--In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the
  HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)

--Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and
  dialect unchanged.





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