Essie Goodman, Negro maid in a smallish Manhattan hotel, at two o'clock in the afternoon, tiptoed into a room, followed by the manager and a policeman. The room was in some disorder. Photographs were littered across the bed; a few had slid down to the floor. A picture of a girl was propped up on a chair near the window and in the corner three theatrical costumes were heaped on top of a trunk. A man was kneeling by the bed, .his hands stiffly and desperately twisted together, his head pushed down against his arms. He did not say anything when the three people came into the room. The policeman touched him, shook him a little, then saw the smear of blood that ran down his cheek from a hole in his temple. "I guess he bumped himself off," said the policeman, "I'll have to have his name." "Orbes," the manager told him, "Marceline Orbes."
Twenty years ago the policeman would not have had to ask how to spell "Marceline." He would have been accustomed to seeing it in big shiny letters over the entrance to the Hippodrome, biggest Manhattan theatre. The little, inexpressive brown face with the smear of blood would have reminded him of another face, with the same features, set in a foolish pointed smile. He would have recognized the dusty, madly tailored evening clothes that Marceline had taken out of his trunk before he killed himself, as the uniform of the most famous clown since the days of Grimaldi.
According to legend, in 1876, aged three, Marceline, perched on the shoulder of an old clown, entered a bullfight arena where his helpless sprawlings made him funny. Marceline preferred to say that he had run away from the tailor to whom he had been apprenticed, crawled under a circus tent and fallen asleep. Then an old clown had saved him from the crouching lion against whose cage he had dozed and taught him the astonishing art of making people laugh. All the legends made Marceline a Spaniard, but he talked with a tight cockney whine in his voice.
In 1905, already famous after a five years' run in London, Marceline came to New York. The people who saw him during the nine years he played at the Hippodrome, damaged his reputation by trying to tell their friends how funny he was. "He just comes out," they said. "He sort of comes out on the stage and moves around ... he looks so funny . . . and his shoes, well they look like broken coal shovels . . . you have to see his face ... it makes you laugh. . . ." Marceline hated to be called a clown in those days. Clowns are the silly fellows in the circus who get guffaws by contorting their inane rubber faces, by painting big spots on their cheeks and putting putty on their noses. Marceline was a droll, or better still, an "auguste;" he wore, not pantaloons, but a baggy tailcoat; he could make a thousand people roar with laughter by saying nothing, merely looking at his left foot.
In 1912, Silvers, his partner, killed himself. When Marceline came back to the Hippodrome in 1915 after a trip abroad, his crowds were already beginning to prefer the silent flutter of faces on a screen to the gayeties of a nimble droll. A mocking shadow ran after him for the next few years, whispering an insult in his ear every time the crowds at Ringling's sat silent when he twisted an eyebrow at them. By 1920, he used to pick up dollars by coming in at business men's dinners and trying to make the solemn faces crack.
All his money was gone, but he still gave his wife, who had left him, $35 every month. At the last he pawned his ring for $15. . . .
In his hotel room he got out the photographs that had been taken of him years ago. Marceline himself had to smile a little at those merry mocking faces. Then, at four o'clock in the morning, he reached for his revolver and shot himself. His body slumped down by the bed on which the photographs were spread out; when Essie Goodman came in the first time, she went out again very quietly, because she thought he was praying.