A single rap shook the dressing room door. Eden Napier Parkhurst placed a hand over her pounding heart. Only three-quarters of an hour remained before she either proved her worthiness or suffered total humiliation. She listened to the single word and coinciding rap repeat at the next door, then the next, then the next as Myles Applegate, the owner and manager of Baltimores Gay Street Theater, stalked the long passageway, acting as the harbinger of triumph or doom to the basement occupants.
Footfalls quaked the floor overhead; the sound of theatergoers jostling through the aisles in search of a seat for the evenings performance of Strange Liaisons. The dressing room—more like a closet with its dimensions of ten feet by twelve—had enough space to accommodate only a small dressing table and chair, a wastebasket, and an area of floor space where Eden had just managed to squeeze a full cage crinoline. The architect who had built the theater in the 1840s hadnt possessed the intellect to envision the modern-day hoop skirt.
As the walls closed in around her and sounds from above multiplied, Eden felt an overwhelming need to vomit. She wrapped her trembling arms around her midsection, then sank into the chair before the scarred dressing table. Twin gaslamps, positioned on either side of the looking glass, hissed loudly in her ears and illuminated the room in a stark light.
More footfalls shook the ceiling; muffled voices spilled through the floorboards. Nervous tension convulsed her throat, made her gag. She seized the small wastebasket, then closed her eyes and leaned forward. And nothing happened. The horrid sensation passed.
She shivered, knuckled her temples, and dared a peek at herself in the looking glass. A white face mirrored back at her; the rich tone of her maroon dressing gown emphasized her lack of color. A sheen of sweat polished her brow.
Why do I feel this way? she thought with a groan. She had rehearsed twelve hours yesterday, another seven today. Except for one segment of dialogue in the plays third act, the lines flowed from her lips as if they had been authored specifically for her tongue. And her memory had not failed her. Indeed, last nights slumber had been interrupted more than once when the play crept into her dreams; she recalled waking twice in the blackness, spouting Maggie Sherwoods words as her own. She just prayed her memory wouldnt abandon her the moment she stepped onto the stage and faced the audience—
And the eyes.
Thousands of eyes witnessing her failure as an actress—and proving her father right.
Even now she could envision her fathers self-righteous expression after he learned of her misfortune, squeezing a leather-bound Bible in his hands and waving his arms wildly about like a demented revival-meeting ecclesiastic. She could almost hear his woeful yet jubilant pleas for the Lord to absolve his pitiable daughter for her defiance and nefarious behavior, to spare her hell-bound soul from the damnation she now fronted—his declarations that her failure was a sign from above, thus proving women should remain in the home where they belonged, fit for nothing better than mending and ironing and cooking and cleaning and birthing with a smile firmly engraved on their faces, their tongues eternally stifled, their minds forever muddled in the mundane.
The ruminations spawned another stomach spasm. Eden cuddled the wastebasket before her as a drowning man might clutch a life-saving log in a churning, bubbling sea.
At least there wasnt cause to fret over the possibility of her parents attending the performance. Even had their strict Calvinistic doctrines not been so indelibly etched on their souls, their didactic manifestoes so quick on their tongues, they still could have never understood the magic of the theater. Indeed, at this moment, she had a hard time believing in that magic herself.
She gave her fears a mental valediction, told herself everything would go as planned. Her lines would flow as written; her memory would remain clear; her tears would gush on command; her voice would stretch to the top tier of the mezzanine. She drew sips from a glass of tepid water, clearing the pastiness from her mouth, the bile from her throat. She forced herself to disregard the sounds from above, forced visions of her father from her mind.
And it helped. The nauseous feeling passed yet again.
She set down the wastebasket, then located her hairbrush and vigorously combed her long bronze tresses. She took another sip of water, then repeated the passage of the third act that had earlier given her trouble, and silently voiced her thanks when the words came without difficulty. Soon, her mirrored image displayed a woman with a healthy pigment. She sighed in relief.
Another knock made her jump. She reached behind her, managing to pull open the door a few inches before the rear legs of her chair prevented further movement. Im sorry. Who is it?
A long-stemmed red rose emerged through the crack to waggle before her face. This is for luck.
Eden recognized the voices rich Southern tonality. Dix?
May I talk with you? Or is it an impossibility?
She smiled. One moment until I maneuver things around.
The rose disappeared and the door closed. Eden stood and pushed the chair to the side, secured the belt of her dressing gown, and pulled the wooden barricade open.
The flaxen-haired actor, Dixon Hollingsworth, postured himself in a dignified stance. A thin layer of theatrical make-up emphasized his high cheekbones and classic nose. His costume, a representation of a hard-working young man in 1725 New England, stressed his robust frame. He half-bowed and, with a theatrical flourish, formally presented her with the flower.
She brought it to her nose, savoring its scent. How thoughtful. Thank you.
He leaned against the door frame. Are you holding up?
Get the shakes yet? The cold sweats? Stomach all atwitter?
Her jaw dropped. How did you know? she asked, amazed.
Always happens when you work with a Leading Lady like Tricia Lockhart.
She laughed, then inspected the hallway. Hush. You dont want her to overhear.
That hagborn? If I had my druthers Id find her this instant and declare it to her face. Nothing gets my blood racing before a performance than a good old-fashioned brawl with that virulent prima donna. A dimple creased his cheek as he smirked. But in all seriousness, the feelings youre experiencing are natural.
Thank goodness. I thought it was just me.
You may possess rare talent, but youre still human. His fawn eyes sparkled. I wanted to invite you into the rehearsal room. Thought you might feel better if we went over some of our scenes. But I can see youre a long way from readiness.
The idea intrigued her. Maybe that was just what she needed to erase the haunting images of failure from her head. Ill meet you there in five minutes.
He bestowed her with a dazzling smile. Until then. He bowed again, then shuffled down the hallway, carrying his hands in his pockets.
Eden closed the door, placed the rose on the dressing table, then snatched her costume from the peg on the wall. As she donned the drab black dress, she eyed Dixons token of luck.
Dixon Hollingsworth, with all of his gentlemanly manners and Southern charm, seemed a hail-fellow well met of twenty-two. Eden also knew him to be a man of honor; he had proved that the previous day—Edens second day as a member of the theatrical company—when he strode up to Tricia Lockhart and, before the entire company, apologized to the Leading Lady for flubbing his lines at rehearsal. Edens respect for him had escalated, while the marginal esteem she held for Tricia plummeted after the actress turned up her nose and refused to acknowledge his kind words.
But Dixon had allowed the snub to roll off his back, then spent the remainder of the day working closely with Eden on their mutual scenes and helping her grow comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of the Gay Street Theater. Indeed, he had taken her under his wings and she couldnt have been more thankful.
In truth, despite Tricias arrogance and the lecherous stares of the Leading Man, Payton Fenwick, Eden enjoyed her first days as a member of the stock company. An undeniable sense of camaraderie existed between most of the actors—esprit de corps. In general, they seemed a good-natured, professional, fun-loving lot.
She buttoned her bodice, then squeezed before the mirror. No signs of her previous mental turmoil. Already Dixons gallant gesture and reassuring words had aided to clear away the lexicon of jumbled emotions. With renewed aplomb, she snatched the script from the dressing table, then escaped the small room and breezed down the passageway.
Voices from the dressing rooms sliced through the continuous drone from the audience upstairs. A giggle came from one door, a story of a libertine variety spilled from another. Eden rounded the corner, making her way toward the rehearsal room—
And stopped dead in her tracks as she came face-to-face with the companys bête noire. Tricia Lockharts mammoth hoop skirt and matching ego obstructed the narrow passageway. Her dark eyes espied the script in Edens hand. A haughty expression played on her face. You could be fined for using that, she snipped with a frosty smile.
I have permission, Eden said politely, then attempted to move past the Leading Lady. Excuse me.
Applegate would never do such a thing, Tricia said, blocking Edens path. You must have been mistaken, dear. He never allows scripts at such a late hour. Besides, a professional actress would have memorized her lines by—
He did authorize it, Eden replied. As if its any of your business, she wanted to add when fantods of annoyance ran through her. But she bit her tongue in a bid to keep peace with the pretentious woman.
Tricias smile turned ugly. Then you wont mind if I tell him? she barked, her eyes challenging.
Edens brow creased. You may do anything your heart desires. Now if youll excuse me, please. After a momentary collision of hoop skirts, Eden managed to escape Tricias company. Behind her, Tricia stomped off, in search of Myles Applegate, no doubt. But Eden couldnt have cared less. Myles had given her a two-week period of leniency with the stock companys rules. As far as she was concerned, Tricia could go to Hades.
She entered the smoke-filled rehearsal room. The companys Soubrette—the position formerly known as the Singing Chambermaid—stood in a corner and giggled as the Light Comedian voiced one of his numerous quips. Skinny Kidd, the roly-poly Eccentric Comedian, sat with a cigar clenched in his teeth and chatted with the companys Old Man—who wasnt so old—and The Heavy—who was thin as a reed, but bore a sinister countenance. Several groups of extras—known as either Respectable, Responsible, or General Utilities—stood or sat in small groups, discoursing lines or relaxing in overstuffed chairs.
She located Dixon, pacing behind the wire-hung curtain which divided the room. That was quick, he said, tossing a half-smoked panatella into a cuspidor. And you oughta be proud of me.
Why is that? she asked, taking a seat on the Sheraton sofa.
Because our favorite stage virago was just in here and I managed to behave myself.
I barely managed to do the same. She told him of her recent encounter with Tricia.
Dont fret, he said, sitting beside her. Myles will stay true to his word.
I should hope so.
Indeed, Myles must have certainly taken a liking to you. He aint known for his generous clemency regarding the rules. Although, he did fine me only two dollars instead of ten for my Tricia-induced tirade, under the condition that she is not to be told.
I shant say a word. Besides, I believe he rather enjoyed your exhibition as much as the rest of us.
Dixon chuckled. Youre right. I think I said everything he had always wanted to say to her but didnt. He lives vicariously through me.
Laughing, she placed the script in her lap, but didnt open the pages, preferring to rely on her memory. Shall we begin?
That difficult scene in the third act.
He nodded, then immediately fell into the character of Charles Flannery. As he delivered his opening lines, Eden stared at him, unable to believe the change in his mannerisms. Even at her first rehearsal, she had noticed how Dixon cloaked himself in the role so completely that all traces of his Southern accent disappeared; had she met him now for the first time, she would have never imagined words such as aint and oughta were a daily part of his vocabulary. Indeed, he sounded like a well-bred gentleman from upper New England, not an actor from Richmond, Virginia. With professional courtesy, she waited for him to finish his passage, then halted the rehearsal.
Dix, please take no offense, but the voice youre utilizing is so unlike your own. With the existing hostility between Northerners and Southerners, why do you make it harder on yourself by allowing your acting talents to go to waste? I mean, you could easily masquerade your heritage from all who find it offensive, thus avoiding nasty encounters.
Why should I hide something Im so proud of? he asked, the accent sneaking back into his normal speech. He rose and licked his lips. It aint a sin to have been born and reared in Dixie, and the small-minded individuals who believe that dont deserve the effort on my part to disguise it. Besides, this voice is the real me—bred-in-the-bone—the one Im comfortable with. Understand?
I think so. Then she smirked. But over the past few days Ive noticed how you also take it to the other extreme.
His tanned cheeks flushed scarlet. Then its obvious?
To me it is. She giggled. But in truth, I dont think Tricia notices how your Southern accent increases tenfold when shes within earshot.
He roared with laughter and sank back into the sofa. Im not certain if its a conscious effort on my part, but I do find myself tossing hayseed colloquialisms in my speech when confronted by bigoted boors. They want to believe all of us Southrons are yokels, so I sprinkle my vocabulary with words they have come to expect. Maybe its childish perversity, he said with a shrug, or maybe Im just itching for a scuffle.
Maybe youre just itching to see Tricia speechless like the other day.
Dixons chameleon face changed into the perfect visage of a wide-eyed hobbledehoy. Why, gallopin galoots, Miss Eden, I sho nough reckon you is right, I do.
His impression of a stereotypical backwoods Southerner tickled her.
Fifteen minutes, folks! Myles Applegate trumpeted from the doorway. The announcement engendered a scintilla of panic in Eden. Blood surged through her veins. Her palms grew damp.
Wed best return to our lines, Dixon said, patting her hand. He climbed to his feet, then paced the room, spouting the words of Charles Flannery to perfection. Eden managed to steel herself against the tremors and rattled off Maggie Sherwoods lines with equal grace, while the script in her lap remained untouched. For the next few minutes, the eighteenth-century world of Charles and Maggie came to life in the curtained area of the basement.
Now, Dixon said at the end of the dialogue section, this is were I pull you into my arms and kiss you. Then they drag Charles away to be executed, and Maggie goes insane and dies. Weve covered everything. Are you comfortable with the scene?
I think so, she replied, but she knew her voice betrayed her. I just pray my legs dont give out on stage.
If you feel yourself wavering, look to me for support. Concentrate on my eyes—not the audience—and imagine were alone in this rehearsal room.
But not all of our scenes are together, she countered, fighting rising trepidation. She mentally cursed herself for this sudden display of weakness.
Then look to the wings. I give you my word, as a Southern gentleman, Ill be there for you.
She nodded, praying she wouldnt need him, but hoping hed keep his promise just the same.
Dixon hunkered down beside the sofa, resting on his haunches. He took her trembling hand in his. If it would make you feel any better, perhaps we should rehearse the kiss. He crooked his left eyebrow and grinned. Mischief danced in his eyes. After all, you know the rules—no ad-libbing on stage.
Eden smirked, and the nervous tension began to slip away. Thank you, Dix.
For what? For offering to kiss you? Heck—any man with half a brain would leap at the chance.
For easing my worries. I appreciate it.
As he patted her hand and displayed a winsome smile, their eyes locked. She blushed, not because of his improper suggestion, but because of her sudden iniquitous thoughts.
Somehow, she was not totally opposed to the idea of kissing him in this somewhat secluded area—an intimate rehearsal à deux. She couldnt ignore his physical attributes—his sinewy build, combined with his dashing good looks and regal bearing, made him a worthy Lochinvar. She enjoyed his forthright nature and sly humor, and she respected his tenacious bravado when confronting the prejudice of Northern hotspurs. Quand même. It made a girl think.
Isnt this sweet! The sudden appearance of Tricia Lockhart cut short Edens prurient speculations. The Leading Lady yanked back the curtain and sashayed into the area. Her face, now heavy with make-up for her role as the middle-aged Isabella Flannery, did nothing to mask her malicious glee. A fire burned deep in her coal-black eyes. I dont seem to recall this little scene in the play.
Dixon released Edens hand, stood, and cocked his head. Back off, Tricia.
You rascal, she said, bating him with a venomous smile. Helping our dear ingénue rehearse her lines?—Or helping yourself to a bit of sport?
Aint you got nothing better to do than to hagride me? he riposted, his Southern drawl thickening with every word. Times awasting. I think you had best go put on your make-up before Applegate has a conniption.
His verbal counterpunch lowered her chin and flared her nostrils. Her face burned crimson, despite the thick layer of cosmetics. Why you twopenny plowboy—
On second thought, he continued with a shake of his head, you are portraying the role of my mother. I think you look old enough as is.
The young actress, just a few years older than both Dixon and Eden, bristled in rage at his contumely. Her fists clenched, while her face mantled from red to plum. She scanned the basement, as if searching for an eyewitness to the outrage, but the room had cleared. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a wrathful gobble escaped her throat. Her eyes skewered Dixon with their bayonet sharpness before she stomped from the room in defeat.
Dixon reeled over in laughter, clapping his hands in triumph. Edens own laughter burst forth, and she rose from the sofa and stepped to his side.
Tricia was right about one thing, Eden said. You are a rascal.
Dont I know it. But I couldnt resist. He composed himself, then wheeled to face her. He lightly placed his hands on her forearms, then looked deep in her eyes. Just remember all Ive told you these past few days. If you make an error, just keep in mind that no one in the audience will know, or even care, a tittle. Just fall back on track as soon as you can.
She drew a deep breath.
And above all else, he continued, sliding his hands down to hers and giving them a squeeze, look to me if you find yourself losing control of your nerves. Ill allow nothing unpleasant to happen to you.
Their physical contact allayed her fears. She eyed him with admiration. My very own garde du corps. His eyes quizzed her. My bodyguard, she clarified. Thank you again, Dix.
He grinned, then released her and held out his arm. She placed her hand on his and he escorted her toward the door.
Now, Miss Parkhurst, I want you to go out there and show the audience your true talent. Make them cry their moneys worth. He paused near the door and winked. And I promise—when it comes time for our stage kiss, Ill be gentle.
Eden waited in the wings for what seemed an eternity. The topside of Dixons hand brushed against her own as he stood beside her and whispered calming words. The soothing friction of skin against skin, his mellow Southern accent dulcet to her ears, his general manner calm and assured, all aided to ease her fears, slow her churning stomach, and keep her knees from knocking. Had he not been there with her, she imagined she would have melted away into the floorboards long ago.
Now, Payton Fenwick, the Leading Man, tromped across the sparsely-decorated stage. As the vengeful and demented Reverend Sherwood, he began voicing the lines that would introduce the character of his daughter, Maggie, to the audience. Edens cue was soon to follow.
Dixon turned to face her. He pointed to his eyes. Remember—look at these for strength. Always. How do you say keep the faith in your adopted second language?
Her mind raced. A momentary panic engulfed her—Dear Lord, why cant I remember the words?—until finally the translation came to her lips. Gardez la foi.
Then—garden lee foot, he said in his counterfeit hayseed accent. His fawn eyes shimmered in merriment.
She bathed him in an adoring smile, realizing it was exactly what he had intended by making a mockery of the pronunciation. And it salved her ruffled emotions.
Suddenly, her cue pounded her ears. With a helping prod by Dixon, Eden lifted her chin and stepped onto the gas-lit stage. Murmurs and whispers rippled through the audience. A gentleman in the first row gasped, then clapped. A lone whistle trilled from the mezzanine to pierce her eardrums.
And Edens throat tightened.
Whats wrong? Is my dress on backward? My bodice unbuttoned? My face smudged? Smeared? Hideous?
She licked her lips and trembled in terror. Her tongue lay dead in her mouth.
Payton Fenwick momentarily fell out of character and stared at her. His black costume, thick make-up, hand-held Bible, and manic smile gave him the flawless appearance of a deranged preacher—the same aspect she had envisioned when earlier thinking of her father. She gulped. A silent word of warning flared in Paytons gray eyes, one that promised swift and severe retaliation if she destroyed his scene.
Eden blinked until images of her father disappeared. She glanced toward the darkened wings and located Dixons reassuring gaze. He was there for her, just as he had promised. His fulgent eyes provided the strength she needed, sparking her into action.
Did you summon me, Father? she uttered.
Yes, child, Payton barked, resuming his role. You must take this message to the Flannery house. He tromped forward and handed her a slip of blank paper. Do not dawdle along the way, Maggie, he continued, his tobacco-onion-gin breath washing over her in all its pungent glory. I shant tolerate tardiness.
No, Father, Eden responded in character, holding her head down, almost cringing.
And once you return, we shall spend the remaining daylight studying the lessons of the Good Book.
But, Father, Eden said, her eyes pleading, I was hoping you would allow me to visit mothers grave. Tis the anniversary of her passing and—
The maniacal Sherwood wrapped his huge hands around her throat, choking off her words. Do you dare sass your father? Paytons smoky eyes mutated into those of a baleful beast; his face contorted into a hideous monstrosity. The fingers at her throat tightened slightly, but Eden grappled with his hands, making it appear like she was fighting off impending death. Answer me, child! Do you dare turn your back on the Ancient of Days and all his teachings?
Eden reached deep within herself and drew from the well of tears. They flowed on cue, rivering down her face, and washing away all traces of her earlier stage-fright. No, Father. Twas not my intention, she gasped and continued clawing his hands, trying to wrench herself free. I shall bow to your will, Father. Please . . . please . . .
With a gentle shove, Payton Fenwick pushed her aside. But Eden made it look as if shed been hurled, caroming against a Pembroke table before collapsing on the stage with a violent bang. Her waist-length hair spilled about her face and shoulders in a waterfall of glistening bronze. As if in agony, she keened and rubbed her arm.
The audience gasped and stirred. Another whistle wafted from the mezzanine as a few members of the audience applauded.
Off with you, child. Now! the Reverend bellowed, looming over his fear-stricken offspring.
Eden picked herself up off the floor, flinging strands of hair from her brow and shoulders. She cuffed the tears on her cheeks. Yes, Father, she whimpered. She backed her way to the imaginary door, then swept from the stage into the shadowy wings—
And directly into Dixons outstretched arms. She hugged him fiercely, unconcerned with the impropriety of her action. As Payton continued behind her with the scene, she looked up at Dixon and smiled. I did it. I cried on cue. I acted my part. I did it.
And you were superb, he whispered, leading her away from the stage area and into the corridor. How do you feel?
Her heart pounding with the drums of triumph, her fingertips tingling with the thrill of victory, her mind swimming in the sea of success, she released him and took stock of her emotions. Bewitched, she said, unable to retrieve a more apt description from her vocabulary.
He grinned, then took her hand and bussed her knuckle. Then you are truly one of us.
Suddenly, a streak of remembrance threatened to destroy her elation. She furrowed her brow, then bent at the waist and inspected her dress, checked the buttons on her bodice, touched her face, finger-combed her hair.
Whats wrong? Dixon asked, seemingly amused at her strange behavior.
When I walked onto the stage I heard whispers, mumbling, gasps of horror, and—
He chuckled. Not horror. He stepped forward, then raised her chin with his thumb and index finger, bringing her eyes level with his, their lips inches apart. His clove-scented breath felt torrid as it brushed over her skin. Are you unaware of your stunning beauty? The audience was responding to your angelic face, your eyes of jade, your healthy complexion, your magnetic and desirable—
He paused. Then released her and backed away. His Adams apple jumped in his throat, while a deep scarlet flushed his cheeks and brow. They were gasping in admiration, Eden, he muttered, his eyes avoiding direct contact with her own.
The news came as something of a revelation. She had always considered herself blessed with a likable face, but she had never truly thought herself beautiful. And the words issuing from Dixons lips, coinciding with his current state of chagrin, sent a frisson of excitement along her spine. He thought of her as—what word did he use—stunning? She had never thought of herself in that way, but the man before her appeared to believe it, and his generous praise flattered her.
Im also needed in this scene, Dixon whispered, straightening his waistcoat and trouser legs. Are you ready? Youll be on again shortly.
Believe it or not, Im actually looking forward to it.
He studied her for a long moment. Good, he said, his handsome face expressionless. And remember—gardez la foi. This time his pronunciation was impeccable. He swept past her, hid behind the curtain, then heard his cue and made for the stage, but not before giving her another swift glance.
She watched him go. As a fresh wave of giddiness raced through her veins, she imagined what it would feel like to kiss him.
She soon found out.
After all her scenes ran with nary a hitch, she found herself alone on the stage with Dixon, now Charles Flannery, in the climax of the third act. As Charles held Maggies hand and professed his undying love for her, the ardent sincerity in his eyes and voice told Eden that perhaps the words came from Dixon himself and were addressed to her, not Maggie. No one could be that good of an actor.
Charles stepped forward and placed his right arm on Maggies hip, then, as Dixon had earlier done to Eden backstage, Charles raised Maggies chin with his thumb and index finger and looked deep into her eyes. Into her soul.
I love you, he said, in a gentle yet commanding voice to his lover Maggie Sherwood. He brought her lips to his own, and kissed her. Longingly. Passionately.
The audience sighed. Then whispered. Then gasped and hooted as the kiss persisted. And Eden knew, as her body pressed tight against Dixons, as she felt his strong arms against her back, as their heartbeats pounded enthusiastically in unison, that Charles Flannery had magically disappeared from the stage. The audacious, spirited, and fervent kiss emanated from Dixon himself.
Eden savored the moment.
And it came as no surprise when Maggie Sherwood soon abandoned her as well, joining Charles Flannery in the blackness of the unknown, waiting to be summoned back to the stage.
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