A Respectable Actress384
A Respectable Actress384
India Hartley, a famous and beautiful actress, is now alone after her father’s death and embarks upon a tour of theaters across the South. Her first stop is Savannah’s Southern Palace. On the eve of the second night’s performance, something goes horribly wrong. Her co-star, Arthur Sterling, is shot dead on stage in front of a packed house, and India is arrested and accused of the crime.
A benefactor hires Philip Sinclair, the best—and handsomest—lawyer in Savannah to defend India. A widower, Philip is struggling to reinvent his worn-out plantation on St. Simons Island. He needs to increase his income from his law practice in order to restore Indigo Point, and hardly anything will bring him more new clients than successfully defending a famous actress on a murder charge.
Because India can’t go anywhere in town without being mobbed, Philip persuades the judge handling her case to let him take her to Indigo Point until her trial date. India is charmed by the beauty of the Georgia lowcountry and is increasingly drawn to Philip. But a locked room that appears to be a shrine to Philip’s dead wife and the unsolved disappearance of a former slave girl raise troubling questions. Piecing together clues in an abandoned boat and a burned-out chapel, India discovers a trail of dark secrets that lead back to Philip, secrets that ultimately may hold the key to her freedom. If only he will believe her.
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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A Respectable Actress
By Dorothy Love
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Dorothy Love
All rights reserved.
Savannah, December 20, 1870
Gunfire exploded to the right of the stage, a burst of sound that temporarily deafened her. When the ringing in her ears subsided she was aware of screams, of shouts for policemen and for a doctor, of the ensuing chaos as officers arrived and began ushering patrons out of the packed theater. Two burly officers leapt onto the stage, seized her by both arms, and manhandled her into a police wagon parked in the alley, the officers with their weapons at the ready, the horses stamping impatiently in the cold.
Now it was midnight, and the city of Savannah slumbered beneath a veil of winter moonlight, the deep silence broken only by a rush of wind that rattled the palmettos and Pride of India trees lining the deserted streets.
Inside the Chatham County Jail, the walls rang with the shouts of drunken sailors and their painted escorts, the clang of metal bars, and snatches of lewd songs sung off-key. Jaded-looking policemen armed with nightsticks moved along the dimly lit corridors, checking the locks and admonishing the prisoners to quiet down.
"Step away from the door." An officer paused outside India's cell, one hand resting on his nightstick. As if a 110-pound woman posed any threat to his safety.
Weak with shock and terror, India retreated. Perched on the edge of a stained, musty-smelling mattress, she rested her head in her hands. What had she done to deserve such grave misfortune? She didn't belong here. And the last thing she needed was scandal. But this latest turn of events — as dramatic as it was tragic — would prove irresistible to the local newspapers. She imagined the typesetter over at the Savannah Morning Herald, rumpled and groggy from having been awakened so suddenly, his composing sticks clattering as he set a sensational new headline for the morning edition.
The officer checked the lock and moved on. She pressed her fingertips to her throbbing head and swallowed the tears building in her throat, wishing desperately for someone to guide and protect her. Someone to take charge of this awful misunderstanding and set her world to rights again.
In the cell next to hers, two women began a loud, drunken argument made all the more unbearable by the overwhelming stench of unwashed bodies, spirits, and stale coffee that hung like fog in the dank, chilly air.
The noise abated as the night wore on, and the singing and shouting gave way to snoring as prisoners succumbed to the effects of custody and too much alcohol. India barely moved from her mattress as the hours crawled toward morning. Eventually she rose and crossed her cell to the door. By pressing her cheek to the cold iron bars and craning her neck, she caught a glimpse of gray daylight.
Father had often reminded her that every situation seemed less daunting in the light of a new day, and now, as she watched a flock of sparrows winging past a high, dusty window glimmering with frost, she felt a surge of hope. All she had to do was explain to the magistrate or the judge or whoever was in charge of such matters exactly what had transpired during last night's performance at the Southern Palace Theater. Surely he would see that she was not to blame.
At the far end of the hallway, a door opened and a policeman came in on a blast of frigid air. India patted her curly hair into place and brushed at the dried blood still clinging to the ruffled skirt of her costume. The arresting officer had hustled her from the stage to this dank and sorry place without allowing her even five minutes to wipe away her stage makeup or to change into her own clothes. She felt grimy from head to toe. She could imagine the streaks on her face from where the greasepaint had run. Not exactly the image she wanted to present to the authorities.
The officer paused before her cell door and fumbled with a set of keys. Iron-gray hair peeked from beneath his cap. The brass buttons on his uniform gleamed dully in the lambent light.
"India Hartley?" His breath smelled of coffee and sleep.
"Yes." She rotated her shoulders, hoping to ease the throbbing at the back of her neck.
He swung open the door and immediately caught her wrist in a viselike grip strong as any manacle. "Come with me."
* * *
The Previous Evening
Her carriage rocked along the street, headed for the theater. India settled into the plush velvet seat and watched the crowds of Christmas shoppers coming and going from stores decorated with wreaths of greenery. At Madame Louis's hair salon, an elaborate poster invited ladies to come in for styles of the highest art. Flyers offering children's toys, European fashions, and grand action pianos fluttered from shop windows illuminated by gaslight.
At the corner of Drayton and Congress, the carriage paused for a man and a small girl crossing the street, their arms laden with packages from Thomas Bateson's store. At the sight of them, India felt a fresh sting of loneliness. For most of her life, she and Father had lived alone, traveling from London to Philadelphia and then Boston, where he managed various theater companies before finally organizing his own. He had recognized her talent and her instinctual understanding of how the theater worked, and groomed her for a life on the stage. But he had failed to teach her anything about how to survive in a harsh and indifferent world.
Father had not been the most skillful of managers. India supported him more often than the other way around. But she never doubted his love for her. He was the touchstone that kept her grounded, and when she lost him she lost the everyday contentment she had taken for granted.
Upon his untimely death, she discovered they were nearly broke and her interest in the Classic Theater Touring Company had been taken over by an unscrupulous manager she'd once trusted. After months of scraping by on next to nothing, she arranged a ten-week tour as a visiting actress to theaters in Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. What would become of her after the tour finished was something she did not let herself think about.
"Here we are, Miss Hartley." The young driver opened the carriage door and extended a gloved hand to assist her as she exited.
When she paused to straighten her hat, he fumbled in his pocket for a scrap of paper and a pencil.
"Would you mind?" He thrust the paper and pencil into her hands. "I mean, I know it's an awful imposition, but my little sister reveres you. It sure would be the best Christmas present ever for her to have your signature."
"Of course." India took the paper and pencil. "What plays of mine has she seen?"
"Oh, we can't afford the theater. But she reads about you in the ladies' magazines she gets from the circulating library. She tries to style her hair like yours. I reckon just about every girl in Savannah wants India Hartley curls." He watched as she fished a carte de visite from her reticule. "She tries to talk like she's from London, too, when she thinks nobody is listening. But I don't reckon the Queen's English mixes too well with our way of speaking."
India scribbled her signature on the back of the photograph — made at Mr. Sarony's New York studio — and pressed it into his hand. "Present this at the theater tonight. I'll have two tickets waiting for you and your sister."
He gaped at her. "You mean it? We're goin' to the Southern Palace?"
India smiled. "You are indeed. The curtain is at eight. Don't be late."
"Well, I sure ... I won't. I mean, thank you, Miss Hartley. Thank you so much. Just wait till I tell Mary. She won't believe it."
He climbed up and flicked the reins. The carriage moved along the crowded street and disappeared around the corner.
Lifting her skirts to avoid the mud and horse droppings littering the street, India hurried to the stage door on the narrow alley and entered the deserted theater.
On the lower level, a long hallway ran the length of the building. Here were dressing rooms, the property room, and the manager's office. At the opposite end of the corridor, a spiral staircase led upward to the stage. At this early hour she was alone in the dimly lit space, but she didn't mind the solitude or the chill seeping through the walls. She and her father had made a habit of arriving at the theater early. She liked having plenty of time to get into costume and quiet her mind, focusing on the story she was about to tell.
A loud crash from above and a man's shouted curse sent her rushing up the staircase and into the theater wings. Riley Quinn, the young assistant to the stage manager, was sitting on the floor, an overturned ladder at his side. In his hands was a large mirror framed in black. He startled when he saw her, then scrambled to his feet.
"Mr. Quinn, are you all right?"
"Yes, ma'am, Miss Hartley. I didn't mean to disturb you. I was just puttin' up this mirror in that far corner, so as to cast more light downstage." He gestured to the corner where a flame torch sat next to a large block of lime. During the performance the lime would be heated to incandescence. Mirrors and gaslights installed along the sides of the stage would provide illumination far more powerful than the candles of old. "I reckon Mr. Sterling will have a harder time keepin' you in the shadows now."
India nodded. Apparently her leading man's ungenerous actions on opening night had not gone unnoticed by the stage crew.
"It wasn't fair, what he done," Quinn went on. "He may be Savannah born and bred, but he sure didn't act like a gentleman last night. Folks can see him in a play most all the time. But it ain't often we get someone of your stature around here. And I for one am mortified by his behavior." Quinn indicated the mirror. "This'll fix him, though, don't you worry."
India returned to the lower level of the theater and entered her dressing room. Larger than most, it had space for a comfortable chair, a dressing table and mirror, hooks for holding her costumes, and a wig stand. She removed her cloak and draped it over a chair, then picked up the script she'd left behind after opening night. Suspicion was the work of Jackson Morgan, a local playwright who had attended every rehearsal and was not shy about shouting stage directions to the actors charged with bringing his tale of mystery and betrayal to life. His behavior had not set well with the Southern Palace's actor-manager, Cornelius Philbrick, or with the leading man, beloved local thespian Arthur Sterling.
India flipped through the script, rereading the notes she'd penciled into the margins, and felt her old excitement returning. For all of its hardships — uncomfortable travel, fleabag hotels, shady managers, vicious critics — a life in the theater was the only one she could imagine for herself. Something magical happened when the curtain parted and she stepped into the circle of light, transformed into a wholly different person, able with her words to move an audience to laughter or tears. Father had often reminded her that fame was as insubstantial as smoke, blown this way and that. And she knew the day would come when audiences withdrew their affection for her and gave it to someone newer, younger, and she would become a footnote. But she had never been interested in being famous. All she wanted was to bring something of beauty into the world and to understand why people sometimes behaved in ways that seemed at odds with who they really were.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway. India rose and went to the door.
"Miss Hartley." Cornelius Philbrick removed his hat and blew on his hands to warm them. "Getting chilly outside."
"Is it? I hadn't really noticed."
He stepped into her dressing room without an invitation. "I'm glad you're here. I want to talk to you about a change in the script."
She frowned. "I don't think Mr. Morgan will approve."
"Any playwright worth his salt knows to expect changes. Morgan understands as well as anyone that words that seem fine on the page sometimes fail to work when spoken aloud."
"Of course. But I must confess I'm not comfortable with last-minute changes. I'd prefer to wait until we can at least rehearse them."
Philbrick's fleshy face went red. "There's no time to rehearse. This afternoon I learned that Richard Thayer will be here this evening," he said, naming the region's most important critic. "He is most fond of plays with an unexpected twist. I have nothing against Mr. Morgan, but you must admit for a play called Suspicion, it's rather tame."
"That depends upon how it's interpreted, don't you think?"
"Are you saying my performance last night was not up to par?"
"Not at all. I think you've done a remarkable job of making a small role seem large. I know from having watched my father juggle the roles of actor and manager that it isn't easy to do both jobs well. But I think you ought to have more confidence in my abilities. And in those of Mr. Sterling."
"I've got plenty of confidence in you. But around here the theatergoing public wants sensation. I aim to give them what they want." Mr. Philbrick pinned her with a stern look. "I'm quite aware of your loyal following. A person can't pick up a magazine without reading India Hartley this and India Hartley that. Even the Savannah Rose Society has named a rose after you. Did you know that?"
"No, but I'm flattered."
"None of that matters, though. I'm sure you know that in the world of the theater, the manager's word is law." He pulled a sheet of crumpled paper from his pocket and smoothed it out. "Now, at the end of the first act, when you are supposed to throw a vase at the head of Mr. Sterling, I want you to — well, here. I reckon you can read it for yourself."
She scanned the page and stared at him, incredulous. "You're suggesting that I pretend to shoot him? I'm afraid it's quite impossible without —"
He silenced her with a frown and jabbed a finger at the page. "And then at the beginning of act two, just here, Sterling's line will be changed to —"
"I'm sorry. I can't do it. Not this evening."
"You can and you will, or I will replace you with the understudy. Miss Bryson is chomping at the bit to make her mark. If you don't intend to cooperate, I can see to it that she gets that chance."
Though inside she trembled with indignation, India forced herself to appear calm. If her father were in the lead role, Mr. Philbrick would never dare suggest such a drastic change. Especially without a rehearsal. What if something went wrong? She handed the paper back to him. "I don't want to seem immodest, but the patrons of the Southern Palace have come to see me. Not an unknown understudy."
"The audience will be sympathetic when I announce that you've taken ill." The theater manager dropped the paper onto her dressing table. "When you come to your senses, the stage will be yours again."
"Has Mr. Sterling been informed of this change?"
Mr. Philbrick took a revolver from his pocket. "Here's your prop."
India studied the weapon, pressing a hand to her midsection to quell her nerves.
"It's quite harmless," Mr. Philbrick said, "as it has no firing pin. You needn't worry about anything apart from making the shot look real." He let out a short laugh. "After Sterling's attempts to steal the limelight last night, I should think you'd enjoy the chance to even the score. Metaphorically speaking, of course."
"I'll see that the gun is delivered to the stage for you. And please do try to wipe the frown off that lovely face of yours."
He pocketed the prop and clumped along the hallway, his steps fading as he reached the spiral stair. India collapsed onto a chair, torn between anger and despair. The loss of her father's theater company had left her with few resources and an uncertain future. As maddening as this last-minute change was, she couldn't afford to give up even a single night's pay.
Excerpted from A Respectable Actress by Dorothy Love. Copyright © 2015 Dorothy Love. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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