Henry Wilcoxon — Lovers for a Day (1935) 🇺🇸

Henry Wilcoxon — Lovers for a Day (1935) | www.vintoz.com

April 13, 2023

"I was with her for no more than twelve hours in my life. But I'll remember her always..." Henry Wilcoxon spoke with a dreamy thoughtfulness which arrested my attention instantly.

by Dell Hogarth

We were in his apartment. A few hours before we had witnessed the preview of "The Crusades." The thunderous applause of the audience still echoed in Hank's ears as he lolled in an easy chair with his old, blue bathrobe and his slippers providing a welcome comfort. His meerschaum pipe was clamped in his teeth.

Somehow, as we idly discussed the picture, our conversation veered to the character of that hard-bitten warrior whom Hank portrayed — Richard the Lion Hearted. When this swashbuckler was swearing, carousing, and conquering in Normandy he fell in love with a simple wench. He was with her but for a day. But, thereafter, some historians affirm, her memory lingered throughout his life.

Could such a thing be? Could such an ephemeral experience endure, when longer relationships are quickly forgotten? Men, notoriously, are swift to forget. It didn't seem possible.

But Hank argued the point doggedly. Of course it was possible. He knew. He had loved someone for one day — and he would never, never forget her.

I stared at him. The argument I was about to fling back died on my lips. It was apparent that he was quite sincere. His mood had altered immediately with that declaration.- As he watched a cloud of smoke curl upward into the shadows of the vaulted ceiling, his eyes assumed a far-away look. He was thinking of the past. I pressed him to go on. To tell me the story.

"Perhaps it will do me good to tell somebody else about it. I never have before. You see, it is the greatest emotional experience I have ever had in my life. And it will sound fantastic.

"I saw her first in Cardiff, Wales. It was for only an instant. I was walking back to my hotel after the show one night to get some exercise. The night was raw, but I chose a circuitous route which led down by the harbor. Few people were about at that hour. Fog horns tooted dismally as ships crawled up the mouth of the Severn. But, in its way, it was beautiful. Fog blotted out the ugly warehouses. It swirled around lamp posts and made the naked trees seem like twisted gnomes. I turned down a side street. As I passed a lamp post, she went in the opposite direction. In that brief moment I saw her beautiful face.

"But I never forgot her haunting beauty. She was so lovely, it was like a stab of pain. She wore no hat. Her hair was like spindrift. Green eyes were elfishly luminous in the lamp light. Perhaps it was vanity, but I thought she smiled.

"I wanted to stop her. As I listened to her footsteps on the pavement I was on the point of rushing back. To stop her. To talk to her. To find out who she was. And where I could see her again. Instead, I was a coward. Too conventionally sensitive. I walked on slowly, looking back, listening to her footsteps die away.

"How I kicked myself afterwards! And how different everything might have been if I'd met her then. But all I could do was speculate as to what kind of a girl she was. I tortured myself with these thoughts. They were my constant preoccupation. She was, I decided, just nineteen. A girl of the streets? Ridiculous! She was probably one of a large family. A family in poorish circumstances. No doubt, she was a dutiful daughter. But was she? There had been such a fierce independence in her proud carriage as she passed me on the street. More probably, she was one of those insurgent spirits who are obsessed with a craving for freedom. A girl who was anxious to try her young wings along some strange course.

"Well, three years later I saw her again. I recognized her instantly. It was easy, you understand, for I had been unconsciously searching for her all the time. I saw her in Portsmouth. I was playing stock at the Garrick and she was in the audience. It wasn't until the middle of the second act that I caught a glimpse of her in the fifth row. I stopped, I staggered, I forgot my lines.

"I came to with Myra — she was the ingenue — trying to cover up the awkward moment by frantically ad-libbing. The stage manager was whispering hoarsely from the wings. But even in my sudden embarrassment the exact seat in which she was sitting registered on my mind. Somehow, I finished the scene. Back in my dressing-room I dashed off a note. I got hold of an usher. He promised faithfully to deliver the note without fail. Then I struggled through until the final curtain."

Hank cleared his throat and asked if I cared for a drink. His own throat was dry. Hank poured me a generous whisky and squirted soda in his own until it was barely flavored.

"Funny," he said, "how trivial we can be in the important moments of life. I knew, of course, that she'd be waiting. Just as I felt so sure all along of so many other things. When I rushed into the lobby the audience was still leaving. People were gathered in little groups to laugh and talk. She was sitting in a chair — so alone, so strangely apart from everyone else. I stepped up beside her. She looked up. Her dark lashes shadowed green eyes which were flecked with golden points.

"I heard myself saying, 'How do you do?' She smiled and said, 'How do you do?' Her voice was softly musical when she spoke. I said, 'I saw you once, years ago.' 'Yes,' she murmured, 'I remember.' I said, 'My name is Henry Wilcoxon.' 'Yes,' she said, 'I know that, too. My name is Deirdre MacArthur.' Then, for some unaccountable reason, I made some stupid remark about the weather.

"We left the lobby. I never did know how far we walked. I was emotionally drunk. Her arm was so snugly warm in my own. We passed taxis which we didn't think of hailing. Down curious streets where I'd never been before. At last we entered a Chinese restaurant.

"There were only a few things about her I'd been able to find out. She was one of seven children. Her father was superintendent of a coal mine in Wales. She was studying music. She wasn't married. Beyond that she wouldn't tell me anymore. But as soon as I gave our order and the hovering waiter departed, I asked her something which I had meant to ask her from the first: 'Will you be my wife?' Her eyes grew wider as she stared at me from across the table. Her lips parted in a faint smile. 'No,' she said, with a curious catch in her voice. 'But thank you, thank you so much.' Oddly enough, that didn't depress my spirits. I felt all along that she would refuse. Just as I knew that I must keep on asking her.

"When we taxied home she insisted that the driver stop at a corner. She wouldn't permit me to accompany her to her lodgings. It was a squalid district. As we stood there, by the lamp post, that momentary vision of long ago returned. It was then that I kissed her. Perhaps it was the way the lamp light spilled on her hair, giving its ash blond texture the quality of spindrift whipped from the breaking waves. She didn't resist the caress. I can feel, even now, the warm pressure of her hand on the back of my head. 'Goodbye,' she whispered. 'I had to see you again. And I knew that someday I would. But promise me something now. Please!' I held her in my arms as I promised. Her head came back to look for a breathless instant into my eyes. 'Remember now, you've promised. Don't try to see me again — ever.' She twisted out of my grasp, turned, and ran down the street."

Hank poured a spot of Scotch into his glass and squirted it full of soda.

"That is the first serious promise that I've ever broken. I couldn't help myself. I suppose. And I'm glad. When the show moved on to Leeds at the end of a week, I quit. I haunted that squalid neighborhood day and night. But nobody seemed acquainted with a girl who answered her description. I never saw her myself. But finally a cockney lad in a grocery market felt sure that he knew whom I meant. He led me up a side street. We climbed a rickety stairway in a flat. He pointed to a door. I gave the lad a shilling and raised my knuckles to knock. I never did. The door opened. And Deirdre stepped out. She stepped out swiftly and closed the door behind her. Her face was chalky white. From a window she must have seen us coming. Her coat was on. As I read the reproof in her eyes I felt like a cad. She didn't speak. I reached out to take her hand. 'You're coming with me,' I said. She didn't resist. Gesturing for silence she caught hold of my sleeve as we tiptoed down the stairs. I hailed a cab.

"We drove out to a hill overlooking the harbor and I told the cabby to wait. We walked down a grassy slope to spread our top coats under a cluster of yew trees. It was May. Even the commercial activity on the harbor below seemed touched by the fever of spring. Nervously belching tugs kept churning the water into soapy ribbons. A steamer hooted for the pilot, a great liner swung away from the hovering insects, blasted a warning, and proudly got under her own steam — going, I suppose, to America. Deirdre leaned against my shoulder, breathing in all this beauty. Her hair brushed my cheek. 'Why don't you marry me?' I said. My voice seemed to startle her out of some dream. Her breath came more quickly. 'Suppose,' she finally said, 'that I begin at the beginning. You shouldn't have come. But now you'll know all.'

"Her story was an unusual one. Briefly, it was this. She had fallen in love with her music teacher who was twenty years older than she. When her family suspected the romantic attachment, her father and eldest brother waylayed the maestro. He was beaten so horribly he went to the hospital. Deirdre was stricken. Her teacher had never realized her secret infatuation. When he partially recovered, his pride was shattered. He was a nervous wreck. People still regarded him with suspicion. He had to leave town. Deirdre insisted on going wherever he went. She loved him now. And he wasn't well. Internal injuries had made him susceptible to tuberculosis. Finally, he gave in to her pleadings. She could accompany him as nurse and he would continue with her music. So one night they slipped away.

His health became worse. They had only his insurance to live on. She worked on the side and saved money to take him to South Africa. His single passion had been to make her the greatest pianist in the world, but now, by the way his eyes followed her about, she knew that he worshipped her. He never uttered his love. He merely said, 'I must live until I teach you all I know.'

"And throughout these years Deirdre realized that she was responsible for his condition. She couldn't hurt him in any way. She hoped, someday, to make him proud of her.

"Well," Hank continued sadly, "it was dark when we left that hillside. Red and green lights on the steamers gleamed up from below. Driving back in the taxi I had the devil's own time making her agree to my proposition. But I wouldn't let her go until she did. Then I hurried to my hotel, packed, and hopped the next train for London. In three days I had a job. In six weeks I was able to send the necessary funds.

"That summer I lived for her letters. I received one every day. Beautiful letters from South Africa. They evoked the image of that last hour in the cab. Deirdre snuggling against my shoulder, the touch of her cheek, the warm appreciation of her hands. I devoured each letter. But what I really wanted to hear — although I wouldn't admit it even to myself— was that at last she was free.

"I didn't think for a moment that she would deceive me. But before her letters stopped coming I accepted a long-run engagement. I was desolate. I wanted to break my contract and sail for South Africa. It finally became so intolerable that I managed to be released. I booked passage. The day before I was to sail I heard from her again."

"Wait," he said, "I'll show you that last letter." Rummaging his hand through his shock of curly, black hair, he left the room. In a little while he returned. He untied a faded ribbon from a bundle of letters. He handed me the one on top and sank down in his chair. "Read it out loud," he said.

The stationery was plain. It was written in a fine, neat hand.

Dearest Henry,

Thanks for everything you've done. The money you sent I used for specialists so I couldn't live apart from Ricci like you begged me to do. I had to stay with him until the end. He died last September. But I couldn't let you know about it then. You see, Henry darling, I contracted what the doctors call quick T. B. I couldn't allow you to marry a phantom, now could I? So goodbye, sweet. The doctor is in the next room and the nurse is waiting to turn out the light. This is probably my last letter. Enclosed is the only thing I have left to give. Keep it always.



There were several blots on the last few lines. I stared at them for a moment, and then returned the letter to Hank. Without a word he handed me a small crucifix. "Just think," he mused, speaking more to himself than to me, "those few times we were together were less than one whole day. Yet it seems that I've known her always... and always will."

I fingered the crucifix gently and then handed it back. I could think of nothing to say. So I muttered something about the hour and we said good night. Hank probably needed some sleep.

Collection: Hollywood MagazineJuly 1935