Brilliant first night. It did not need the flower-crowded dressing-room, the cards from admirers, the warm-hearted congratulations — ranging from director to doorman — to tell Katherine Douglas that the play was a success and her own part in it a triumph: she had felt the audience with her from the moment she stepped on the stage. After the climax in the last act there had been a hush, then a deep sigh from the auditorium before the tension broke into wave after wave of applause.
Home at last — and alone! Warmth from an open fire was easing taut nerves: the flickering shadows were friendly, companionable. How often she had found peace and quiet and renewed energy in watching the flames and the shadows! The memory of other momentous nights came to her and she thought of them now as parts in a pattern; threads that had colored the design of her life. The pattern had not always been as she would have wished it.
There were those terribly lonely years when she was struggling to win a name for herself. Then had come the time when, playing some bit part, she had done it her way at the very last minute, and stolen the show. Kindly critics closed one eye to her youthful deficiencies, and with the other saw a rosy future in store for her. More years of hard work, and heartache, too. She was her own most severe critic, never satisfied, never quite finding the way to liberate something locked-up inside of her.
She remembered another 'first night.' It had been brilliant, too, but with the cold scintillating quality of stars on a frosty night. There had been an ovation, but afterwards she had gone home and wept, and in the misery of her frustration she had told herself: "I would give anything if only I could do that part as I feel it should be done!"
What imp of fate had been eavesdropping? Or was it life taking note and challenging her to prove her words?
That was in the Spring of 1944 and Bill, her husband, was stationed in England. She had received no word from him for several weeks. Then came the news of "D" Day, and on its heels a telegram from the War Department. . . . Katherine caught her breath even now remembering the horror. Merciful heaven! it had been awful: there wasn't enough of Bill left to send home!
Her first reaction was to phone her manager to have her understudy take over; but when she heard his voice all she said was: "I'll be there as usual, Grant."
"What's the matter?" Grant Thornton was worried. "Are you ill, Katherine? Your voice sounds as if you had a cold."
She realized then that he hadn't heard about Bill. She told him she'd had a severe upset but would be all right by evening, and hung up.
Mercifully, the news was still not out by show time. How she got through that night she never knew. For the most part words and actions were automatic; yet at moments it was her own life that she was playing to a spellbound audience and, sensing that rapport, a corner of her brain wondered vaguely why she had been unable to give of herself so completely before this agonizing experience. When she had responded to the last curtain-call she fled to her dressing-room, and after what seemed an eternity she was home. But there was no peace: inside of her everything was churning.
She awoke from a fitful sleep with the dread of facing another performance. She lifted the phone and put it back: it was as if Bill were standing beside her and she could hear his voice, half teasing yet wholly tender — "You wouldn't let me down that way, honey!" So she had faced it. Being a 'good trooper' did much to tide her over the first shock. In time it did more than that: something melted in Katherine Douglas, and though it seemed for weeks that her whole being would dissolve in the struggle, she came out of it spiritually strengthened. During those days of anguish she had gone into 'the valley of the shadow' and found her way back to the sunlight.
To think of Bill was still to feel a stab of pain; but there was something else — Katherine could not define it. Bill had always said she had much to give; he knew her perennial irritation at falling short of her ideal, but he had faith that one day the urge within her would break every barrier. The ache in her heart made her tender to all who had loved and suffered: if only through her art she might bring happiness to others!
Looking back, she saw the pattern in perspective and marveled at the way life breaks us and reshapes us. She knew now that suffering this ordeal had liberated the power so long locked-up within her. Had she been given the choice she never would have paid the price — not willingly. The triumph of her art was as nothing beside her loss: what counted, and to her mind was a redeeming factor, was that the door of her heart had been opened to share something beautiful with others. Courage, patience, sympathy, understanding: she might not recognize these qualities as being hers; yet they had built a new life for her, and through her art they had touched the lives of many, like the spreading ripples on the waters of a pool.
More greatly treasured than any acclamations had been the simple notes of appreciation thanking her for fine performances. They were from people she would probably never know, but they spoke from the heart, and told of the return of courage and hope — just seeing and hearing her had helped.
Thinking on the way she had come, Katherine Douglas saw the meaning of it more clearly. She had never stinted in giving of herself, yet how vastly more had come to her in return: it was as if she were part of a spiritual circulatory system, and what she received must be shared again and again with those who needed what she had to give. She hoped it would always be so: that, she decided, was the purpose of the pattern.
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The highest wisdom is frankness — Benjamin Franklin