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   Chapter 14 No.14

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 25984

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


From Blackpool Morton and Cox's opera company proceeded to Southport, and, still going northward, they visited Newcastle, Durham, Dundee, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. But in no one town did they remain more than a week. Every Sunday morning, regardless as swallows of chiming church-bells, they met at the station and were whirled as fast as steam could take them to new streets, lodging-houses, and theatres. To Kate this constant change was at once wearying and perplexing, and she often feared that she would never become accustomed to her new mode of life. But on the principle that we can scarcely be said to be moving when all around is moving in a like proportion, Kate learned to regard locality as a mere nothing, and to fix her centre of gravity in the forty human beings who were wandering with her, bound to her by the light ties of opéra bouffe.

Wherever she went her life remained the same. She saw the same faces, heard the same words. Were they likely to do good business? was debated when they alighted from the train; that they had or had not done good business was affirmed when they jumped into the train. Soon even the change of apartments ceased to astonish her, and she saw nothing surprising in the fact that her chest of drawers was one week on the right and the following on the left-hand side of her bed. Nor did she notice after two or three months of travelling whether wax flowers did or did not decorate the corners of her sitting-room, and it seemed to her of no moment whether the Venetian blinds were green or brown. The dinners she ate were as good in one place as in another; the family resemblance which slaveys bear to each other satisfied her eyes, and the difference of latitude and longitude between Glasgow and Aberdeen she found did not in the least alter her daily occupations.

Montgomery came to see her every morning, and the tunefulness of the piano was really all that reminded them of their change of residence. From twelve until three they worked at music, both vocal and instrumental. Dick sought for excuses to absent himself, but when he returned he always insisted that Montgomery should remain to dinner. All formalities between them were abolished, and Kate did not hesitate to sit on her lover's knees in the presence of her music-master. But he did not seem to care, he only laughed a little nervously. Kate sometimes wondered if he really disliked witnessing such familiarities. In her heart of hearts she was conscious that there were affinities of sentiment between them, and during the music lessons they talked continually of love. The sight of Montgomery's lanky face often interrupted an emotional mood, but she recovered it again when he sat looking at her, talking to her of his music. In this way he became a necessity to her existence, a sort of spiritual light. They never wearied of talking about Dick; between them it was always Dick, Dick, Dick! He told her anecdotes concerning him-how he had acted certain parts; how he had stage-managed certain pieces; of supper parties; of adventures they had been engaged in. These stories amused Kate, although the odour of woman in which they were bathed, as in an atmosphere, annoyed and troubled her. As if to repay him for his kindness, she became confidential, and one day she told him the story of her life.

It would, she said, were it taken down, make the most wonderful story-book ever written; and beginning at the beginning, she gave rapidly an account of her childhood, accentuating the religious and severe manner in which she had been brought up, until the time she and her mother made the acquaintance of the Edes. There it was necessary to hesitate. She did not wish to tell an absolute lie, but was yet desirous to convey the impression that her marriage with Mr. Ede had been forced upon her; but Montgomery had already accepted it as a foregone conclusion. With his fingers twisted through his hair, and his head thrust forward in the position in which we are accustomed to see composers seeking inspiration depicted, he listened, passionately interested. And when it came to telling of the mental struggle she had gone through when struggling between her love for Dick and her duty towards her husband, Montgomery's face, under the influence of many emotions, straightened and contracted. He asked a hundred questions, and was anxious to know what she had thought of Dick when she saw him for the first time. She told him all she could remember. Her account of the visit to the potteries proved very amusing, but before she told him of their fall amid the cups and saucers she made Montgomery swear he would never breathe a word. 'Oh, the devil! Was that the way he cut his legs? He told us that he had forgotten his latchkey, and that he had done it in getting over the garden-wall.'

Running his hand over the piano, Montgomery begged of Kate to continue her story; but as she proceeded with the analysis of her passion the events became more and more difficult to narrate; and she knew not how to tell the tale how one dark night her husband sent her down to open the door to Dick; but she must tell everything so that the whole of the blame should not fall upon him. She alluded vaguely to violence and to force; Montgomery's face darkened and he protested against his friend's conduct.

To Kate it was consoling to meet someone who thought she was not entirely to blame, and the conversation came to a pause.

'And now I'm going about the country with you all, and am thinking of going on the stage.'

'And will be a success, too-that I'll bet my life.'

'Do you really think so? Do tell me the real truth; do you think I shall ever be able to sing?'

'I'm sure of it.'

'Well, I'm glad to hear you say so, for it's now more necessary than ever.'

'How do you mean? Has anything fresh happened? You're not on bad terms with

Dick, are you? Tell me.'

'Oh, not the least! Dick is very good to me; but if I tell you something you promise not to mention it?'

'I promise.'

'Well, we were-I don't know what you call it-summoned, I think-by a man before we left Blackpool to appear in the Divorce Court.'

For nearly half a minute they looked at each other in silence; then

Montgomery said:

'I suppose it was after all about the best thing that could happen.'

This answer surprised Kate. 'Why,' she said, 'do you think it's the best thing that could happen to me?'

'Because when you get your divorce, if you play your cards well, you'll be able to get Dick to marry you.'

Kate made no reply, and for some time both considered the question in silence. She wondered if Dick loved her sufficiently to make such a sacrifice for her: Montgomery reflected on the best means of persuading his friend 'to do right by the woman.' At last he said:

'But what did you mean just now when you said that it was more necessary than ever that you should go on the stage?'

'I don't know, only that if I'm going to be divorced I suppose I'd better see what I can do to get my living.'

'Well, it isn't my fault if you aren't on the stage already. I've been trying to induce you to make up your mind for the last month past.'

'Oh, the chorus! that horrid chorus! I never could walk about before a whole theatre full of people in those red tights.'

'There's nothing indecent in wearing tights. Our leading actresses play in travestie. In Faust Trebelli Bettini wears tights, and I'm sure no one can say anything against her.'

Tights were a constant subject of discussion between the three, friend, mistress, and lover. All sorts of arguments had been adduced, but none of them had shaken Kate's unreasoned convictions on this point. A sense of modesty inherited through generations rose to her head, and a feeling of repugnance that seemed almost invincible, forbade her to bare herself thus to the eyes of a gazing public. But although inborn tendencies cannot be eradicated, the will that sustains them can be broken by force of circumstances, and her resolutions began to fail her when Dick declared that the thirty shillings a week she would thus earn would be a real assistance to them.

In reality the manager had no immediate need of the money, but it went against his feelings to allow principles, and above all principles he could not but think absurd, to stand in the way of his turning over a bit of coin. 'Besides, he said, 'how can I put you into a leading business all at once? No matter how well you knew your words, you'd dry up when you got before the footlights. You must get over your stage fright in the chorus. On the first occasion I'll give you a line to speak, then two or three, and then when you've learnt to blurt them out without hesitation, we'll see about a part.'

These and similar phrases were dinned into her ears, until at last the matter got somehow decided, and the London costumier was telegraphed to for a new dress. When it arrived a few days after, the opening of the package caused a good deal of merriment. Dick held up the long red stockings, as Kate called the tights, before Montgomery. It was too late now to retract. The dress looked beautiful, and tempted on all sides, she consented to appear that night in Les Cloches. So at half-past six she walked down to the theatre with her bundle under her arm. Dick had not allotted to her a dressing-room, and to avoid Miss Beaumont, who was always rude, she went of her own accord up to number six. An old woman opened the door to her, and when Kate had explained what she had come for, she said:

'Very well, ma'am. I'm sure I don't mind; but we're already eight in this room, and have only one basin and looking-glass between the lot. I'm afraid you won't be very comfortable.'

'Oh! that won't matter. It may be only for to-night. If I'm too much in the way I'll ask Mr. Lennox to put me somewhere else.'

On that Kate entered. It was a long, narrow, whitewashed room, smelling strongly of violet-powder and clothes. Nobody had arrived yet, and the dresses lay spread out on chairs awaiting the wearers. One was a peasant-girl's dress-a short calico skirt trimmed with wreaths of wild flowers, and she regretted that she could not exchange the page's attire for one of these.

'And as regards the tights,' added the old woman, 'you'd have to wear them just the same with peasant-girls' frocks as with these trunks, for, as you can see, the skirts only just come below the knees.'

At this moment the conversation was interrupted by the clattering of feet on the rickety staircase and two girls entered talking loudly; Kate had often spoken to them in the wings. Then some more women arrived, and Kate withdrew her chair as far out of reach as possible of the flying petticoats and the scattered boots and shoes. One lady could not find her tights, another insisted on the bodice of her dress being laced up at once; three voices shouted at once for the dresser, and the call-boy was heard outside:

'Ladies! ladies! Mr. Lennox is waiting; the curtain is going up.'

'All right! all right!' cried an octave of treble voices, and tripping over their swords, those who were ready hurried downstairs, leaving the others screaming at the dresser, who was vainly attempting to tidy the room.

When Kate got on the stage the first person she saw was Montgomery, the very one she wished most to avoid. After having conducted the overture he had come up to find out the reason of the 'wait.' Dick was rushing about, declaring that if this ever occurred again half a-crown would be stopped out of all the salaries.

'Oh! how very nice we look! and they're not thin,' exclaimed Montgomery, pushing his glasses up on his nose. And forgetting his difficulties as if by magic, Dick smiled with delight as, holding her at arm's length, he looked at her critically.

'Charming, my dear! There won't be a man in front who won't fall in love with you. But I must see where I can place you.'

All the rest passed as rapidly as in a dream, and before she could again think distinctly she was walking round the stage in the company of a score of other girls. Treading in time to the music, they formed themselves into lines, making place for Leslie, who came running down to the footlights. There was no time for thinking; she was whirled along. Between the acts she had to rush upstairs to put on another dress; between the scenes she had to watch to know when she had to go on. Sometimes Dick spoke to her, but he was generally far away, and it was not until the curtain had been rung down for the last time that she got an opportunity of speaking to him.

As they walked home up the dark street when all was over, she laid her hand affectionately on his arm:

'Tell me, Dick, are you satisfied with me? I've done my best to please you.'

'Satisfied with you?' replied the big man, turning towards her in his kind unctuous way, 'I should think so: you looked lovely, and your voice was heard above everybody's

. I wish you'd heard what Montgomery said. I'll give you a line to speak when you've got a bit of confidence. You're a bit timid, that's all.' And delighted Kate listened to Dick, who had begun to sketch out a career for her. Her voice, he said, would improve. She'd have twice the voice in a year from now, and with twice the voice she'd not only be able to sing Clairette in Madame Angot, but all Schneider's great parts.

He talked on and on, and in the early hours of the morning he was relating how The Brigands had failed at the Globe, the conditions of his capitalist being that his mistress was to play one of the leading parts at a high salary, and that he was to take over the bars. That was thirty pounds a week gone; and the woman sang so fearfully out of tune that she was hissed-a pity, for the piece contained some of Offenbach's best music. A casual reference to the dresses led up to a detailed account of how he had bought the satin down at the Docks at the extraordinary low price of two shillings a yard, and this bargain prepared the way for a long story concerning a girl who had worn one of these identical dresses. She was now a leading London actress, and every step of her upward career was gone into. Then followed several biographies. Charlie -- sang in the chorus and was now a leading tenor. Miss -- had married a rich man on the Stock Exchange; and so on. Indeed, everybody in that ill-fated piece seemed to have succeeded except the manager himself. But no such criticism occurred to Kate. Her heart was swollen with admiration for the man who had been once at the head of all this talent, and the rich-coloured future he would shape for her flowed hazily through her mind.

And Kate grew happier as the days passed until she began to think she must be the happiest woman living. Her life had now an occupation, and no hour that went pressed upon her heavier than would a butterfly's wing. The mornings when Dick was with her had always been delightful; and the afternoons had been taken up with her musical studies. It was the long evenings she used to dread; now they had become part and parcel of her daily pleasures. They dined about four, and when dinner was over it was time to talk about what kind of house they were going to have, to fidget about in search of brushes and combs, the curling-tongs, and to consider what little necessaries she had better bring down to the theatre with her. At first it seemed very strange to her to go tripping down these narrow streets at a certain hour-streets that were filled with people, for the stage and the pit entrance are always within a few yards of each other, and to hear the passers-by whisper as she went by, 'She's one of the actresses.' One day she found a letter addressed to her under the name chosen by Dick-a picturesque name he thought looked well on posters-and not suspecting what was in it, she tore open the envelope in presence of half-a-dozen chorus-girls, who had collected in the passage. A diamond ring fell on the floor, and in astonishment Kate read:

'DEAR MISS D'ARCY,-In recognition of your beauty and the graceful way in which you play your part, I beg to enclose you a ring, which I hope to see on your finger to-night. If you wear it on the right hand I shall understand that you will allow me to wait for you at the stage-door. If, however, you decide that my little offering suits better your left hand, I shall understand that I am unfortunate.

'(Signed) AN ADMIRER.'

'Who left this here?' asked Kate of the doorkeeper.

'A tall young gent-a London man, I should think, by the cut of him, but he left no name.'

'A very pretty ring, anyhow,' said a girl, picking it up.

'Not bad,' said another; 'I got one like it last year at Sheffield,'

'But what shall I do with it?' asked Kate.

'Why, wear it, of course,' answered two or three voices simultaneously.

'Wear it!' she repeated, and feeling very much like one in possession of stolen goods, she hurried on to the stage, intending to ask Dick what she was to do with the ring. She found him disputing with the property man, and it was some time before he could bring himself to forget the annoyance that a scarcity of daggers had occasioned him. At last, however, with a violent effort of will, he took the note from her hand and read it through. When he had mastered the contents a good-natured smile illumined his chub-cheeked face, and he said:

'Well, what do you want to say? I think the ring a very nice one; let's see how it looks on your hand,'

'You don't mean that I'm to wear it?'

'And why not? I think it's a very nice ring,' the manager said unaffectedly. 'Wear it first on one hand and then on the other, dear; that will puzzle him,'

'But supposing he comes to meet me at the stage-door?'

'Well, what will that matter? We'll go out together; I'll see that he keeps his distance. But now run up and get dressed.'

'Now then, come in,' cried Dolly, who was walking about in a pair of blue stockings. 'You're as bashful as an undergraduate.'

A roar of laughter greeted this sally, and feeling humiliated, she began to dress.

'You haven't heard Dolly's story of the undergraduate?' shouted a girl from the other end of the room.

'No, and don't want to,' replied Kate, indignantly. 'The conversation in this room is perfectly horrid. I shall ask Mr. Lennox to change me. And really, Miss Goddard, I think you might manage to dress yourself with a little more decency.'

'Well, if you call this dress,' exclaimed Dolly, fanning herself. 'I suppose one must take off one's stockings to please you. You're as bad as--'

Dolly was the wit of No. 6 dressing-room, and having obtained her laugh she sought to conciliate Kate. To achieve this she began by putting on her tights.

'Now, Mrs. Lennox,' she said, 'don't be angry; if I've a good figure I can't help it. And I do want to hear about the diamond ring.'

This was said so quaintly, so cunningly, as the Americans would say, that Kate couldn't help smiling, and abandoning her hand she allowed Dolly to examine the ring.

'I never saw anything prettier in my life. It wasn't an undergra-?' said the girl, who was a low comedian at heart and knew the value of repetition.

'I must drink to his health. Who has any liquor? Have you, Vincent?'

'Just a drain left,' said a fat girl, pulling a flat bottle out of a dirty black skirt, 'but I'm going to keep it for the end of the second act.'

'Selfishness will be your ruin,' said Dolly. 'Let's subscribe to drink the gentleman's health,' she added, winking at the bevy of damsels who stood waiting, their hands on their hips. And it being impossible for Kate to misunderstand what was expected of her she said:

'I shall be very glad to stand treat. What shall it be?'

After some discussion it was agreed that they could not do better than a bottle of whisky. The decrepit dresser was given the money, with strict injunctions from Dolly not to uncork the bottle. 'We can do that ourselves,' the girl added, facetiously; and a noisy interest was manifested in the ring, the sender and the letter. Kate said that Dick had advised her to wear the ring first on one hand and then on the other.

'To keep changing it from one hand to another,' cried Dolly; 'not a bad idea; and now to the health and success of the sender of the ring.'

'I cannot drink to that toast,' Kate answered, laying aside her glass.

'That the word "success" be omitted from the toast!' cried Dolly, and the merriment did not cease until the call-boy was heard crying, 'Ladies, ladies! Mr. Lennox is waiting on the stage.' Then there was a scramble for the glass and the dresser, and Dolly's voice was heard screaming:

'Now then, Mother Hubbard, have you the sweet-stuff I told you to get? I don't want to go downstairs stinking of raw spirit.'

'I couldn't get any,' said the old woman, 'but I brought two slices of bread; that'll do as well.'

'You're a knowing old card,' said Dolly. 'Eat a mouthful or two, it'll take the smell off, Mrs. Lennox,' and the girls rattled down the staircase, arriving on the stage only just in time for their cue.

'Cue for soldiers' entrance,' the prompter cried, and on they went, Montgomery taking the music a little quicker than usual till Kate, who was now in the big eight, clean forgot how often she had changed her ring from the left hand to the right. But she did wear it on different hands, and no admirer came up and spoke to her at the stage-door. Dick was there waiting for her; she felt quite safe on his arm, and as soon as they had had a mouthful of supper they began the weekly packing.

Next morning it was train and station, station and train, but despite many delays they managed to catch the train, and on Monday night her gracefulness was winning for her new admirers: in every town the company visited she received letters and presents; none succeeded, however, in weakening her love, or persuading her from Dick.

'Yet lovers around her are sighing,' Montgomery chuckled, and Dick began to consider seriously the means to be adopted to secure Kate's advancement in her new profession. One night Montgomery returned home with them after the performance, bringing with him the script, and till one in the morning the twain sat together trying to devise some extra lines for the first scene in Les Cloches.

'The scene,' Dick said, 'is on the seashore. The girls are on their way to market.'

'Supposing she said something like this, eh? "Mr. Baillie, do you like brown eyes and cherry lips?" And then another would reply, "Cherry brandy most like."'

'No, I don't think the public would see the point; you must remember we're not playing to a London public. I think we'd better have something broader.'

'Well, what?'

'You remember the scene in Chilpéric when--'

The conversation wandered; and Mr. Diprose's version of the opera and his usual vile taste in the stage management was severely commented on. In such pleasant discussion an hour was agreeably spent; but at last the sudden extinguishing of a cigarette reminded them that they had met for the purpose of writing some dialogue. After a long silence Dick said:

'Supposing she were to say, "Mr. Baillie, you've a fine head." You know I want something she'd get a laugh with.'

'If she said the truth, she'd say a fat head,' replied Montgomery with a laugh.

'And why shouldn't she? That's the very thing. She's sure to get a laugh with that-"Mr. Baillie, you have a fat head." Let's get that down first. But what shall she say after?' And in silence they ransacked their memories for a joke which could be fitted to the one they had just discovered.

After some five minutes of deep consideration, and wearied by the unaccustomed mental strain put upon his mind, Dick said:

'Do you know the music of Tr?ne d'écosse? Devilish good. If the book had been better it would have been a big success.'

'The waltz is about the prettiest thing Hervé has done.'

This expression of opinion led up to an animated discussion, in which the rival claims of Hervé and Planquette were forcibly argued. Many cigarettes were smoked, and not until the packet was emptied did it occur to them that only one 'wheeze' had been found.

'I never can do anything without a cigarette; do try to find me one in the next room, Kate, dear. Listen, Montgomery, we've got "Baillie, you've a fat head." That'll do very well for a beginning; but I'm not good at finding wheezes.'

'And then I can say, "Baillie, you've a fine head,"' said Kate, who had been listening dreamily for a long time, afraid to interrupt.

'Not a bad idea,' said Dick. 'Let's get it down.'

'And then,' screamed Montgomery, as he perched both his legs over the arm of his chair, 'she can say, "I mean a great head, Mr. Baillie."'

For a moment Dick's eyes flashed with the light of admiration, and he seemed to be considering if it were not his duty to advise the conductor that his talents lay in dialogue rather than in music. But his sentiments, whatever they may have been, disappeared in the burst of inspiration he had been waiting for so long.

'We can go through the whole list of heads,' he exclaimed triumphantly. 'Fat head, fine head, broad head, thick head, massive head-yes, massive head. The Baillie will appear pleased at that, and will repeat the phrase, and then she will say "Dunderhead!" He'll get angry, and she'll run away. That'll make a splendid exit-she'll exit to a roar.'

Dick noted down the phrases on a piece of paper, to be pasted afterwards into the script. When this was done, he said:

'My dear, if you don't get a roar with these lines, you can call me a --.

And when we play the piece at Hull, I shouldn't be surprised if you got

noticed in the papers. But you must pluck up courage and check the Baillie.

We must put up a rehearsal to-morrow for these lines. Now listen,

Montgomery, and tell me how it reads.'

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