THE CIRCLE OF BRASS

They entered the theatre together at four o’clock that afternoon,
Angelo, Dan Baker and Petite Jeanne. It was a damp, chilly, autumn day.
Jeanne had caught the mood of the day before they entered. There was
nothing about the empty playhouse to dispel this disturbing gloom. The
half light that was everywhere, a small—bright torch of a lamp here and
there boring sharply into the darkness—revealed the threadbare,
neglected interior of the place. The floor of the stage creaked as they
ventured to walk across it. Row on row of plush seats lay dimly before
them. The few that were lighted were soiled and faded. The once gay gilt
of box seats had cracked off in places, showing the white beneath. The
great velvet curtain drooped woefully.

“How dismal!” Jeanne spoke before she thought.

“My dear,” said Dan Baker, stepping before Angelo to conceal his look of
pain, “it is not the house, but the people that make a theatre. The
glowing, pulsating throng of living beings. This is a theatre. Picture
this broad stage filled with dreams of beauty and grace. Catch a glimpse
of the gay costumes. Listen to the songs and laughter.

“And yonder,” he spread his arms wide as if to take in a great
multitude, “yonder are the people, hundreds, thousands! Are they less
colorful, less gay? Not one whit. For this is their happy hour. Fans,
flowers, smiles, color, laughter, beauty. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy
forever.’ No, no, my child! On our great night you will not see the
faults of this poor, gray old house that has known the joys and sorrows
of three generations of human souls, and which is now standing among
tall skyscrapers waiting its destruction; you will see only the gracious
people who have come to catch the glow of light and joy that is our
opera.”

As Petite Jeanne looked at him her heart glowed with fresh fire. To her
at this moment the aged trouper, with his flowing locks and drooping
hat, was the noblest work of God.

“Thanks, old timer,” said Angelo. His tone was husky as he gripped Dan
Baker’s hand.

Jeanne said never a word, but as she touched his hand ever so lightly,
he understood even better than if she had delivered an oration.

Her dislike of the ancient theatre, with its narrow, ratty dressing
rooms, its steep, worn stairways and its smell of decay, was dispelled.
But with the manager, the director, the actors she had not met before,
as well as the chorus, it was quite another matter. To her distress she
found that they, one and all, treated her quite as an outsider. Dan
Baker, too, was quite outside their circle. He understood it, and did
not care. Having been a trouper, he realized that in companies such as
these there were those who “belonged” and those who did not.

But poor, friendly, hopeful, big-hearted Jeanne, though she was to have
a leading part in the play, had intended from the first to be a friend
to them, one and all. And behold, none of them would accept her
offering.

Members of the chorus might be engaged in an animated conversation, but
let her join them and their gayety ceased while they moved silently
away.

Not many attempts were made before the sensitive soul of the little
French girl curled up like an oyster in a shell. But it was an aching
little heart, at that.

“Why? Why?” she demanded of her conscience, and of her confessor, Dan
Baker.

“My child,” the aged dancer smiled faintly, “they live in what might be
called a golden circle. The circle is complete. None may enter. It is
the way of the stage.

“You cannot understand,” he said gently, “for you have not long been a
trouper. You could not know that they were all practically born on the
stage; that their fathers and mothers, yes and their grandparents before
them, were stage people. They have traveled together, some of them, for
years. As they moved from city to city, the people of each city were
only an audience to be amused. They have made the audience laugh; they
have made it cry. But always they have thought of that audience as a
great lump of humanity. Not one individual in that lump cared for one of
them in a personal way. Only among their own group have they found
companions. Little by little a strong bond has been formed. Hemming them
in, it keeps others out. That is their golden circle.”

“It is a most wretched circle!” cried Jeanne with a touch of anger. “It
is not a golden circle, but a circle of brass, brass about their necks;
the sign of slavery.”

After this Jeanne made no further attempts to mingle with her fellow
workers. When not on the stage she sat in a corner, reading a French
novel.

But her cup of woe was not full. She had hoped to dance her native
dances from the gypsyland of France, just as she had learned them there.
This was not to be. The director, the tall, dark, youngish man, he of
the chilled steel face who never smiled, had a word to say about this.
The dances, he decreed, were not right. They must be changed. A girl
named Eve, head of the chorus, must teach Jeanne new steps.

Eve taught her, and did a thorough job of it. Born on the west side, Eve
had made her way up by sheer nerve and a certain feeling for rhythm.

No two persons could be more unlike than this Eve and our Petite Jeanne.
Petite Jeanne was French to the tips of her toes. She loved art for
art’s sake. Beauty and truth, sweetness and light, these were words of
infinite charm to her. Had the same words been pronounced to Eve, she
would have suspected the speaker of pronouncing a spelling lesson to
her. Eve lived for one thing only—applause. It had been the thunder of
applause that had caused her to set her foot on the first round of the
ladder to fame. That same thunder had kept her toiling year after year.

Petite Jeanne cared little for applause. When she went before an
audience it was as if she said to those assembled before her, “See! Here
I have something all together beautiful. It has been handed down to us
through countless ages, a living flame of action and life, a gypsy
dance. This is beauty. This is life. I hope you may forget me and know
only this marvel of beauty and truth, sweetness and light.”

And now, under the ruthless hand of Eve, she saw her thing of beauty
torn apart and pieced with fragments of bold movements and discordant
notes which made her dances much more brazen.

But that was not all. “Your toes,” decreed the merciless, dark-faced
director, “are too limber; your legs are too stiff. You must look to the
brass rail for remedy.”

“The brass rail?” She did not say the words. Soon enough she found out.
In a cold back room she stood for half an hour, gripping a long brass
rail safely anchored some three feet from the floor, twisting her toes
and bending her poor limbs until she could have screamed with pain. It
helped not a bit that a dozen members of the chorus, who never spoke a
word to her, were going through the same painful performance.

She uttered wailing complaints to Angelo in his studio that night.
Angelo passed the complaint on to the poker-faced manager.

“If you wish to direct your play,” this dictator decreed, “you may do
so, provided,” he prodded Angelo in the ribs until it hurt, “provided
you are able and willing also to finance it.”

“It’s a hard life, my child,” Dan Baker said to Jeanne the next night,
as the light of the fire played on his weary old face. “You think the
brass rail is terrible. But think of me. They have put me in a gymnasium
for an hour each day, where a Samson of a chap uses me for a dumbbell,
an Indian club and a punching bag.”

Jeanne laughed at his description and felt better.

“They’re spoiling your dance, little girl,” he said in a more serious
tone. “But never mind. Do your old dance in the old way here in this
room or in the park, just as you were doing it when I first saw you.
Keep it full of freshness, life and beauty, stretch it to fill the time,
and when we open,” his voice died to a whisper, “on our great first
night, dance your gypsy dance just as you learned it back there in
France, and I promise you that all will be more than well.”

Petite Jeanne caught her breath. Here was a bold proposal. Would she
dare?

Springing to her feet, she went swinging away in a wild whirl. When she
dropped back in her place before the fire, she whispered hoarsely,

“I will!”

Her strong young hand met his in a grip that was a pledge.

But were these things to be? Even as she lay there blinking at the fire,
some imp of darkness seemed to whisper, “You will never do it. You never
will.”

She looked at the Fire God resting at the edge of the flames, and
thought she saw him frown.

Petite Jeanne was a gifted person. She was a dancer of uncommon ability.
Those who studied her closely and who were possessed of eyes that truly
saw things had pronounced her a genius. Yet she was possessed of an even
greater gift; she knew the art of making friends. Defeated by an ancient
unwritten law, in her attempt to be a friend to the girls of the chorus,
she had found her friends among the lowly ones of the theatre. For with
all her art she never lost the human touch.

She had not haunted the ratty old theatre long before Mary, the woman
who dusted seats, Jimmie, the spotlight operator, Tom, the stoker who
came up grimy from the furnaces, and Dave, the aged night watchman, one
and all, were her friends.

That was why, on special occasions, these people did exactly what she
wanted. One night at the ghostly hour of eleven she found herself,
bare-footed and clad in scanty attire, doing her dance upon the stage
while Jimmie, grinning in his perch far aloft, sent a mellow spot of
light down to encircle and caress her as a beam of sunshine or a vapory
angel might have done.

Dave, the watchman and her faithful guardian, was not far away. So, for
the moment, she knew no fear. The rancorous voice of the director, the
low grumble of the manager, were absent. Now she might dance as nature
and the gypsies had taught her, with joy and abandon.

Since she had fully decided that on the night of nights, when for the
first time in months the old Blackmoore was thronged, she would take
matters into her own hands and dance as God, the stars and all out-doors
had taught her, and feeling that only practice on the stage itself would
give her heart the courage and her brain the assurance needed for that
eventful hour, she had bribed these friends to assist her. And here she
was.

Dance on this night she did. Jimmie watched and marveled. Such grace and
simple, joyous abandon, such true melody of movement, such color in
motion, he had not known before.

“Ah!” he whispered. “She is possessed! The gypsies have bewitched her!
She will never be real again.”

Indeed, had she given one wild leap in the air and risen higher and
higher until she vanished into thin darkness as a ghost or an angel, he
would have experienced no astonishment.

Surprise came to him soon enough, for all that. Suddenly the fairy-like
arms of the dancer fell to her sides. Her lithe body became a statue.
And there she stood in that circle of light, rigid, motionless,
listening.

Then, throwing her arms high in a gesture of petition, she cried,

“Jimmie! The flutter of wings! Can you hear them? How they frighten me!

“Jimmie,” she implored, “don’t let the spotlight leave me! Can you hear
them, Jimmie? Wings. Fluttering wings. They mean death! Do you hear
them, Jimmie?”

Leaning far forward, Jimmie heard no wings. But in that stillness he
fancied he heard the mad beating of the little French girl’s heart, or
was it his own?

So, for one tense moment, they remained in their separate places,
motionless.

Then, with a little shudder, the girl shook herself free from the terror
and called more cheerily,

“There! They are gone now, the wings. Throw on a light, and come and
take me home, Jimmie. I can dance no more to-night.”

As she turned to move toward the spot on the floor where her precious
God of Fire stood leering at her, she seemed to catch a sound of furtive
movement among the shadows. She could not be sure. Her heart leapt, and
was still.

Five minutes later she and Jimmie were on a brightly lighted street.

“Wings,” the little French girl murmured once more. “The flutter of
wings!” And again, as they neared her home, “Wings.”

“Aw, forget it!” Jimmie muttered.

She was not to forget. She was to hear that flutter again, and yet
again.