“An’ de next’ frawg dat houn’ pup seen, he pass him by wide.”
The house, which had hung upon every word, roared with laughter, and shook with a storming volley of applause. Gideon bowed to right and to left, low, grinning, assured comedy obeisances; but as the laughter and applause grew he shook his head, and signaled quietly for the drop. He had answered many encores, and he was an instinctive artist. It was part of the fuel of his vanity that his audience had never yet had enough of him. Dramatic judgment, as well as dramatic sense of delivery, was native to him, qualities which the shrewd Felix Stuhk, his manager and exultant discoverer, recognized and wisely trusted in. Off stage Gideon was watched over like a child and a delicate investment, but once behind the footlights he was allowed to go his own triumphant gait.
It was small wonder that Stuhk deemed himself one of the cleverest managers in the business; that his narrow, blue-shaven face was continually chiseled in smiles of complacent self-congratulation. He was rapidly becoming rich, and there were bright prospects of even greater triumphs, with proportionately greater reward. He had made Gideon a national character, a headliner, a star of the first magnitude in the firmament of the vaudeville theater, and all in six short months. Or, at any rate, he had helped to make him all this; he had booked him well and given him his opportunity. To be sure, Gideon had done the rest; Stuhk was as ready as any one to do credit to Gideon’s ability. Still, after all, he, Stuhk, was the discoverer, the theatrical Columbus who had had the courage and the vision.
A now-hallowed attack of tonsilitis had driven him to Florida, where presently Gideon had been employed to beguile his convalescence, and guide him over the intricate shallows of that long lagoon known as the Indian River in search of various fish. On days when fish had been reluctant Gideon had been lured into conversation, and gradually into narrative and the relation of what had appeared to Gideon as humorous and entertaining; and finally Felix, the vague idea growing big within him, had one day persuaded his boatman to dance upon the boards of a long pier where they had made fast for lunch. There, with all the sudden glory of crystallization, the vague idea took definite form and became the great inspiration of Stuhk’s career.
Gideon had grown to be to vaudeville much what Uncle Remus is to literature: there was virtue in his very simplicity. His artistry itself was native and natural. He loved a good story, and he told it from his own sense of the gleeful morsel upon his tongue as no training could have made him. He always enjoyed his story and himself in the telling. Tales never lost their savor, no matter how often repeated; age was powerless to dim the humor of the thing, and as he had shouted and gurgled and laughed over the fun of things when all alone, or holding forth among the men and women and little children of his color, so he shouted and gurgled and broke from sonorous chuckles to musical, falsetto mirth when he fronted the sweeping tiers of faces across the intoxicating glare of the footlights. He had that rare power of transmitting something of his own enjoyments. When Gideon was on the stage, Stuhk used to enjoy peeping out at the intent, smiling faces of the audience, where men and women and children, hardened theater-goers and folk fresh from the country, sat with moving lips and faces lit with an eager interest and sympathy for the black man strutting in loose-footed vivacity before them.
“He’s simply unique,” he boasted to wondering local managers—”unique, and it took me to find him. There he was, a little black gold-mine, and all of ‘em passed him by until I came. Some eye? What? I guess you’ll admit you have to hand it some to your Uncle Felix. If that coon’s health holds out, we’ll have all the money there is in the mint.”
That was Felix’s real anxiety—”If his health holds out.” Gideon’s health was watched over as if he had been an ailing prince. His bubbling vivacity was the foundation upon which his charm and his success were built. Stuhk became a sort of vicarious neurotic, eternally searching for symptoms in his protégé; Gideon’s tongue, Gideon’s liver, Gideon’s heart were matters to him of an unfailing and anxious interest. And of late—of course it might be imagination —Gideon had shown a little physical falling off. He ate a bit less, he had begun to move in a restless way, and, worst of all, he laughed less frequently.