Damsel in Distress
∙ next chapter
The sun that had shone so brightly on Belpher Castle at noon, when
Maud and Reggie Byng set out on their journey, shone on the
West-End of London with equal pleasantness at two o'clock. In
Little Gooch Street all the children of all the small shopkeepers
who support life in that backwater by selling each other vegetables
and singing canaries were out and about playing curious games of
their own invention. Cats washed themselves on doorsteps,
preparatory to looking in for lunch at one of the numerous garbage
cans which dotted the sidewalk. Waiters peered austerely from the
windows of the two Italian restaurants which carry on the Lucretia
Borgia tradition by means of one shilling and sixpenny table d'hote
luncheons. The proprietor of the grocery store on the corner was
bidding a silent farewell to a tomato which even he, though a
dauntless optimist, had been compelled to recognize as having
outlived its utility. On all these things the sun shone with a
genial smile. Round the corner, in Shaftesbury Avenue, an east wind
was doing its best to pierce the hardened hides of the citizenry;
but it did not penetrate into Little Gooch Street, which, facing
south and being narrow and sheltered, was enabled practically to
Mac, the stout guardian of the stage door of the Regal Theatre,
whose gilded front entrance is on the Avenue, emerged from the
little glass case in which the management kept him, and came out to
observe life and its phenomena with an indulgent eye. Mac was
feeling happy this morning. His job was a permanent one, not
influenced by the success or failure of the productions which
followed one another at the theatre throughout the year; but he
felt, nevertheless, a sort of proprietary interest in these
ventures, and was pleased when they secured the approval of the
public. Last night's opening, a musical piece by an American
author and composer, had undoubtedly made a big hit, and Mac was
glad, because he liked what he had seen of the company, and, in the
brief time in which he had known him, had come to entertain a warm
regard for George Bevan, the composer, who had travelled over from
New York to help with the London production.
George Bevan turned the corner now, walking slowly, and, it seemed
to Mac, gloomily towards the stage door. He was a young man of
about twenty-seven, tall and well knit, with an agreeable,
clean-cut face, of which a pair of good and honest eyes were the
most noticeable feature. His sensitive mouth was drawn down a
little at the corners, and he looked tired.
"Good morning, sir."
"Anything for me?"
"Yes, sir. Some telegrams. I'll get 'em. Oh, I'll GET 'em," said
Mac, as if reassuring some doubting friend and supporter as to his
ability to carry through a labour of Hercules.
He disappeared into his glass case. George Bevan remained outside
in the street surveying the frisking children with a sombre glance.
They seemed to him very noisy, very dirty and very young.
Disgustingly young. Theirs was joyous, exuberant youth which made a
fellow feel at least sixty. Something was wrong with George today,
for normally he was fond of children. Indeed, normally he was fond
of most things. He was a good-natured and cheerful young man, who
liked life and the great majority of those who lived it
contemporaneously with himself. He had no enemies and many
But today he had noticed from the moment he had got out of bed that
something was amiss with the world. Either he was in the grip of
some divine discontent due to the highly developed condition of his
soul, or else he had a grouch. One of the two. Or it might have
been the reaction from the emotions of the previous night. On the
morning after an opening your sensitive artist is always apt to
feel as if he had been dried over a barrel.
Besides, last night there had been a supper party after the
performance at the flat which the comedian of the troupe had rented
in Jermyn Street, a forced, rowdy supper party where a number of
tired people with over-strained nerves had seemed to feel it a duty
to be artificially vivacious. It had lasted till four o'clock when
the morning papers with the notices arrived, and George had not got
to bed till four-thirty. These things colour the mental outlook.
"Here you are, sir."
George put the telegrams in his pocket. A cat, on its way back from
lunch, paused beside him in order to use his leg as a serviette.
George tickled it under the ear abstractedly. He was always
courteous to cats, but today he went through the movements
perfunctorily and without enthusiasm.
The cat moved on. Mac became conversational.
"They tell me the piece was a hit last night, sir."
"It seemed to go very well."
"My Missus saw it from the gallery, and all the first-nighters was
speaking very 'ighly of it. There's a regular click, you know, sir,
over here in London, that goes to all the first nights in the
gallery. 'Ighly critical they are always. Specially if it's an
American piece like this one. If they don't like it, they precious
soon let you know. My missus ses they was all speakin' very 'ighly
of it. My missus says she ain't seen a livelier show for a long
time, and she's a great theatregoer. My missus says they was all
specially pleased with the music."
"The Morning Leader give it a fine write-up. How was the rest of
"Splendid, all of them. I haven't seen the evening papers yet. I
came out to get them."
Mac looked down the street.
"There'll be a rehearsal this afternoon, I suppose, sir? Here's
Miss Dore coming along."
George followed his glance. A tall girl in a tailor-made suit of
blue was coming towards them. Even at a distance one caught the
genial personality of the new arrival. It seemed to go before her
like a heartening breeze. She picked her way carefully through the
children crawling on the side walk. She stopped for a moment and
said something to one of them. The child grinned. Even the
proprietor of the grocery store appeared to brighten up at the
sight of her, as at the sight of some old friend.
"How's business, Bill?" she called to him as she passed the spot
where he stood brooding on the mortality of tomatoes. And, though
he replied "Rotten", a faint, grim smile did nevertheless flicker
across his tragic mask.
Billie Dore, who was one of the chorus of George Bevan's musical
comedy, had an attractive face, a mouth that laughed readily,
rather bright golden hair (which, she was fond of insisting with
perfect truth, was genuine though appearances were against it), and
steady blue eyes. The latter were frequently employed by her in
quelling admirers who were encouraged by the former to become too
ardent. Billie's views on the opposite sex who forgot themselves
were as rigid as those of Lord Marshmoreton concerning thrips. She
liked men, and she would signify this liking in a practical manner
by lunching and dining with them, but she was entirely
self-supporting, and when men overlooked that fact she reminded
them of it in no uncertain voice; for she was a girl of ready speech
"'Morning, George. 'Morning, Mac. Any mail?"
"I'll see, miss."
"How did your better four-fifths like the show, Mac?"
"I was just telling Mr. Bevan, miss, that the missus said she
'adn't seen a livelier show for a long time."
"Fine. I knew I'd be a hit. Well, George, how's the boy this bright
"Limp and pessimistic."
"That comes of sitting up till four in the morning with festive
"You were up as late as I was, and you look like Little Eva after a
night of sweet, childish slumber."
"Yes, but I drank ginger ale, and didn't smoke eighteen cigars. And
yet, I don't know. I think I must be getting old, George. All-night
parties seem to have lost their charm. I was ready to quit at one
o'clock, but it didn't seem matey. I think I'll marry a farmer and
George was amazed. He had not expected to find his present view of
life shared in this quarter.
"I was just thinking myself," he said, feeling not for the first
time how different Billie was from the majority of those with whom
his profession brought him in contact, "how flat it all was. The
show business I mean, and these darned first nights, and the party
after the show which you can't sidestep. Something tells me I'm
Billie Dore nodded.
"Anybody with any sense is always about through with the show
business. I know I am. If you think I'm wedded to my art, let me
tell you I'm going to get a divorce the first chance that comes
along. It's funny about the show business. The way one drifts into
it and sticks, I mean. Take me, for example. Nature had it all
doped out for me to be the Belle of Hicks Corners. What I ought to
have done was to buy a gingham bonnet and milk cows. But I would
come to the great city and help brighten up the tired business
"I didn't know you were fond of the country, Billie."
"Me? I wrote the words and music. Didn't you know I was a country
kid? My dad ran a Bide a Wee Home for flowers, and I used to know
them all by their middle names. He was a nursery gardener out in
Indiana. I tell you, when I see a rose nowadays, I shake its hand
and say: 'Well, well, Cyril, how's everything with you? And how are
Joe and Jack and Jimmy and all the rest of the boys at home?' Do
you know how I used to put in my time the first few nights I was
over here in London? I used to hang around Covent Garden with my
head back, sniffing. The boys that mess about with the flowers
there used to stub their toes on me so often that they got to look
on me as part of the scenery."
"That's where we ought to have been last night."
"We'd have had a better time. Say, George, did you see the awful
mistake on Nature's part that Babe Sinclair showed up with towards
the middle of the proceedings? You must have noticed him, because
he took up more room than any one man was entitled to. His name was
George recalled having been introduced to a fat man of his own age
who answered to that name.
"It's a darned shame," said Billie indignantly. "Babe is only a
kid. This is the first show she's been in. And I happen to know
there's an awfully nice boy over in New York crazy to marry her.
And I'm certain this gink is giving her a raw deal. He tried to
get hold of me about a week ago, but I turned him down hard; and I
suppose he thinks Babe is easier. And it's no good talking to her;
she thinks he's wonderful. That's another kick I have against the
show business. It seems to make girls such darned chumps. Well, I
wonder how much longer Mr. Arbuckle is going to be retrieving my
mail. What ho, within there, Fatty!"
Mac came out, apologetic, carrying letters.
"Sorry, miss. By an oversight I put you among the G's."
"All's well that ends well. 'Put me among the G's.' There's a good
title for a song for you, George. Excuse me while I grapple with
the correspondence. I'll bet half of these are mash notes. I got
three between the first and second acts last night. Why the
nobility and gentry of this burg should think that I'm their
affinity just because I've got golden hair--which is perfectly
genuine, Mac; I can show you the pedigree--and because I earn an
honest living singing off the key, is more than I can understand."
Mac leaned his massive shoulders comfortably against the building,
and resumed his chat.
"I expect you're feeling very 'appy today, sir?"
George pondered. He was certainly feeling better since he had seen
Billie Dore, but he was far from being himself.
"I ought to be, I suppose. But I'm not."
"Ah, you're getting blarzy, sir, that's what it is. You've 'ad too
much of the fat, you 'ave. This piece was a big 'it in America,
"Yes. It ran over a year in New York, and there are three companies
of it out now."
"That's 'ow it is, you see. You've gone and got blarzy. Too big a
'elping of success, you've 'ad." Mac wagged a head like a harvest
moon. "You aren't a married man, are you, sir?"
Billie Dore finished skimming through her mail, and crumpled the
letters up into a large ball, which she handed to Mac.
"Here's something for you to read in your spare moments, Mac.
Glance through them any time you have a suspicion you may be a
chump, and you'll have the comfort of knowing that there are
others. What were you saying about being married?"
"Mr. Bevan and I was 'aving a talk about 'im being blarzy, miss."
"Are you blarzy, George?"
"So Mac says."
"And why is he blarzy, miss?" demanded Mac rhetorically.
"Don't ask me," said Billie. "It's not my fault."
"It's because, as I was saying, 'e's 'ad too big a 'elping of
success, and because 'e ain't a married man. You did say you wasn't
a married man, didn't you, sir?"
"I didn't. But I'm not."
"That's 'ow it is, you see. You pretty soon gets sick of pulling
off good things, if you ain't got nobody to pat you on the back for
doing of it. Why, when I was single, if I got 'old of a sure thing
for the three o'clock race and picked up a couple of quid, the
thrill of it didn't seem to linger somehow. But now, if some of the
gentlemen that come 'ere put me on to something safe and I make a
bit, 'arf the fascination of it is taking the stuff 'ome and
rolling it on to the kitchen table and 'aving 'er pat me on the
"How about when you lose?"
"I don't tell 'er," said Mac simply.
"You seem to understand the art of being happy, Mac."
"It ain't an art, sir. It's just gettin' 'old of the right little
woman, and 'aving a nice little 'ome of your own to go back to at
"Mac," said Billie admiringly, "you talk like a Tin Pan Alley song
hit, except that you've left out the scent of honeysuckle and Old
Mister Moon climbing up over the trees. Well, you're quite right.
I'm all for the simple and domestic myself. If I could find the
right man, and he didn't see me coming and duck, I'd become one of
the Mendelssohn's March Daughters right away. Are you going,
George? There's a rehearsal at two-thirty for cuts."
"I want to get the evening papers and send off a cable or two. See
"We shall meet at Philippi."
Mac eyed George's retreating back till he had turned the corner.
"A nice pleasant gentleman, Mr. Bevan," he said. "Too bad 'e's got
the pip the way 'e 'as, just after 'avin' a big success like this
'ere. Comes of bein' a artist, I suppose."
Miss Dore dived into her vanity case and produced a puff with which
she proceeded to powder her nose.
"All composers are nuts, Mac. I was in a show once where the
manager was panning the composer because there wasn't a number in
the score that had a tune to it. The poor geek admitted they
weren't very tuney, but said the thing about his music was that it
had such a wonderful aroma. They all get that way. The jazz seems
to go to their heads. George is all right, though, and don't let
anyone tell you different."
"Have you know him long, miss?"
"About five years. I was a stenographer in the house that published
his songs when I first met him. And there's another thing you've
got to hand it to George for. He hasn't let success give him a
swelled head. The money that boy makes is sinful, Mac. He wears
thousand dollar bills next to his skin winter and summer. But he's
just the same as he was when I first knew him, when he was just
hanging around Broadway, looking out for a chance to be allowed to
slip a couple of interpolated numbers into any old show that came
along. Yes. Put it in your diary, Mac, and write it on your cuff,
George Bevan's all right. He's an ace."
Unconscious of these eulogies, which, coming from one whose
judgment he respected, might have cheered him up, George wandered
down Shaftesbury Avenue feeling more depressed than ever. The sun
had gone in for the time being, and the east wind was frolicking
round him like a playful puppy, patting him with a cold paw,
nuzzling his ankles, bounding away and bounding back again, and
behaving generally as east winds do when they discover a victim who
has come out without his spring overcoat. It was plain to George
now that the sun and the wind were a couple of confidence
tricksters working together as a team. The sun had disarmed him
with specious promises and an air of cheery goodfellowship, and had
delivered him into the hands of the wind, which was now going
through him with the swift thoroughness of the professional hold-up
artist. He quickened his steps, and began to wonder if he was so
sunk in senile decay as to have acquired a liver.
He discarded the theory as repellent. And yet there must be a
reason for his depression. Today of all days, as Mac had pointed
out, he had everything to make him happy. Popular as he was in
America, this was the first piece of his to be produced in London,
and there was no doubt that it was a success of unusual dimensions.
And yet he felt no elation.
He reached Piccadilly and turned westwards. And then, as he passed
the gates of the In and Out Club, he had a moment of clear vision
and understood everything. He was depressed because he was bored,
and he was bored because he was lonely. Mac, that solid thinker,
had been right. The solution of the problem of life was to get hold
of the right girl and have a home to go back to at night. He was
mildly surprised that he had tried in any other direction for an
explanation of his gloom. It was all the more inexplicable in that
fully 80 per cent of the lyrics which he had set in the course of
his musical comedy career had had that thought at the back of them.
George gave himself up to an orgy of sentimentality. He seemed to
be alone in the world which had paired itself off into a sort of
seething welter of happy couples. Taxicabs full of happy couples
rolled by every minute. Passing omnibuses creaked beneath the
weight of happy couples. The very policeman across the Street had
just grinned at a flitting shop girl, and she had smiled back at
him. The only female in London who did not appear to be attached
was a girl in brown who was coming along the sidewalk at a
leisurely pace, looking about her in a manner that suggested that
she found Piccadilly a new and stimulating spectacle.
As far as George could see she was an extremely pretty girl, small
and dainty, with a proud little tilt to her head and the jaunty
walk that spoke of perfect health. She was, in fact, precisely the
sort of girl that George felt he could love with all the stored-up
devotion of an old buffer of twenty-seven who had squandered none
of his rich nature in foolish flirtations. He had just begun to
weave a rose-tinted romance about their two selves, when a cold
reaction set in. Even as he paused to watch the girl threading her
way through the crowd, the east wind jabbed an icy finger down the
back of his neck, and the chill of it sobered him. After all, he
reflected bitterly, this girl was only alone because she was on her
way somewhere to meet some confounded man. Besides there was no
earthly chance of getting to know her. You can't rush up to pretty
girls in the street and tell them you are lonely. At least, you
can, but it doesn't get you anywhere except the police station.
George's gloom deepened--a thing he would not have believed
possible a moment before. He felt that he had been born too late.
The restraints of modern civilization irked him. It was not, he
told himself, like this in the good old days.
In the Middle Ages, for example, this girl would have been a
Damsel; and in that happy time practically everybody whose
technical rating was that of Damsel was in distress and only too
willing to waive the formalities in return for services rendered by
the casual passer-by. But the twentieth century is a prosaic age,
when girls are merely girls and have no troubles at all. Were he
to stop this girl in brown and assure her that his aid and comfort
were at her disposal, she would undoubtedly call that large
policeman from across the way, and the romance would begin and end
within the space of thirty seconds, or, if the policeman were a
quick mover, rather less.
Better to dismiss dreams and return to the practical side of life
by buying the evening papers from the shabby individual beside him,
who had just thrust an early edition in his face. After all notices
are notices, even when the heart is aching. George felt in his
pocket for the necessary money, found emptiness, and remembered
that he had left all his ready funds at his hotel. It was just one
of the things he might have expected on a day like this.
The man with the papers had the air of one whose business is
conducted on purely cash principles. There was only one thing to be
done, return to the hotel, retrieve his money, and try to forget
the weight of the world and its cares in lunch. And from the hotel
he could despatch the two or three cables which he wanted to send
to New York.
The girl in brown was quite close now, and George was enabled to
get a clearer glimpse of her. She more than fulfilled the promise
she had given at a distance. Had she been constructed to his own
specifications, she would not have been more acceptable in George's
sight. And now she was going out of his life for ever. With an
overwhelming sense of pathos, for there is no pathos more bitter
than that of parting from someone we have never met, George hailed
a taxicab which crawled at the side of the road; and, with all the
refrains of all the sentimental song hits he had ever composed
ringing in his ears, he got in and passed away.
"A rotten world," he mused, as the cab, after proceeding a couple
of yards, came to a standstill in a block of the traffic. "A dull,
flat bore of a world, in which nothing happens or ever will happen.
Even when you take a cab it just sticks and doesn't move."
At this point the door of the cab opened, and the girl in brown
"I'm so sorry," she said breathlessly, "but would you mind hiding