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   Chapter 16 No.16

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 16742

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


'Ladies and gentlemen,' said Mr. Hayes, who had been pushed, much against his will, before the curtain of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, to make the following statement, 'I'm sorry to inform you that in consequence of indisposition-that is to say, the accidental spraining of her ankle-Miss Leslie will not be able to appear to-night. Your kind indulgence is therefore requested for Miss D'Arcy, who has, on the shortest notice, consented to play the part of Serpolette.'

'Did yer ever 'ear of anyone spraining an ankle on purpose?' asked a scene-shifter.

'Hush!' said the gas-man, 'he'll 'ear you.'

Amid murmurs of applause, Mr. Hayes backed into the wings.

'Well, was it all right?' he asked Dick.

'Right, my boy, I should think it was; there was a touch of Gladstone in your accidentally sprained ankle.'

'What do you mean?' said the discomfited acting manager.

'I haven't time to tell you now. Now then, girls, are you ready?' he said, rushing on to the stage and hurriedly changing the places of the choristers. Putting his hand on a girl's shoulder, he moved her to the right or left as his taste dictated. Then retiring abruptly, he cried, 'Now then, up you go!' and immediately after thirty voices in one sonority sang:

'"In Corneville's wide market-pla-a-ces,

Sweet servant-girls, with rosy fa-a-ces,

Wait here, wait here."'

'Now, then, come on. You make your entrance from the top left.'

'I don't think I shall ever be able to do that run in.'

'Don't begin to think about anything. If you don't like the run, I'll tell you how to do it,' said Dick, his face lighting up with a sudden inspiration; 'do it with a cheeky swagger, walking very slowly, like this; and then when you get quarter of the way down the stage, stop for a moment and sing, "Who speaks ill of Serpolette?" Do you see?'

'Yes, yes, that will suit me better; I understand.'

Then standing under the sloping wing, they both listened anxiously for the cue.

'She loves Grenicheux.'

'There's your cue. On you go; give me your shawl.'

The footlights dazzled her; a burst of applause rather frightened than reassured her, and a prey to a sort of dull dream, she sang her first lines. But she was a little behind the beat. Montgomery brought down his stick furiously, the répliques of the girls buffeted her ears like palms of hands, and it was not until she was halfway through the gossiping couplets, and saw Montgomery's arm swing peacefully to and fro over the bent profiles of the musicians that she fairly recovered her presence of mind. Then came the little scene in which she runs away from her uncle Gaspard and hides behind the Baillie. And she dodged the old man with such sprightliness from one side of the stage to the other that a murmur of admiration floated over the pit, and, arising in echoes, was prolonged almost until she stepped down to the footlights to sing the legend of Serpolette.

The quaintly tripping cadences of the tune and the humour of the words, which demanded to be rather said than sung, were rendered to perfection. It was impossible not to like her when she said:

'"I know not much of my relations,

I never saw my mother's face;

And of preceding generations

I never found a single trace.

'"I may have fallen from the sky,

Or blossomed in a rosebud sweet;

But all I know is this, that I

Was found by Gaspard in his wheat."'

A smile of delight filled the theatre, and Kate felt the chilling sense of separation which exists between the public and a debutante being gradually filled in by a delicious but almost incomprehensible notion of contact-a sensation more delicate than the touch of a lover's breath on your face. This reached a climax when she sang the third verse, and had not etiquette forbade, she would have had an encore for it alone.

'"I often think that perhaps I may

The heiress to a kingdom be,

But as I wore no clothes that day

I brought no papers out with me."'

These words, that had often seemed coarse in Leslie's mouth, in Kate's seemed adorably simple. So winning was the smile and so coquettishly conscious did she seem of the compromising nature of the statement she was making, that the entire theatre was actuated by the impulse of one thought: Oh! what a little dear you must have been lying in the wheat-field! The personality of the actress disappeared in the rosy thighs and chubby arms of the foundling, and notwithstanding the length of the song, she had to sing it twice over. Then there was an exit for her, and she rushed into the wings. Several of the girls spoke to her, but it was impossible for her to reply to them. Everything swam in and out of sight like shapes in a mist, and she could only distinguish the burly form of her lover. He wrapped a shawl about her, and a murmur of amiable words followed her, and, with her thoughts fizzing like champagne, she tried to listen to his praises.

Then followed moments in which she anxiously waited for her cues. She was nervously afraid of missing her entrance, and she dreaded spoiling her success by some mistake. But it was not until the end of the act when she stepped out of the crowd of servant-girls to sing the famous coquetting song that she reached the summit of her triumph.

Kate was about the medium height, a shade over five feet five. When she swung her little dress as she strutted on the stage she reminded you immediately of a pigeon. In her apparent thinness from time to time was revealed a surprising plumpness.

For instance, her bosom, in a walking dress no more than an indication, in a low body assumed the roundness of a bird's, and the white lines of her falling shoulders floated in long undulations into the blue masses of her hair. The nervous sensibility of her profession had awakened her face, and now the brown eyes laughed with the spiritual maliciousness with which we willingly endow the features of a good fairy. The hips were womanly, the ankle was only a touch of stocking, and the whole house rose to a man and roared when coquettishly lifting the skirt, she sang:

'"Look at me here! look at me there!

Criticize me everywhere!

From head to feet I am most sweet,

And most perfect and complete."'

The audience, principally composed of sailors-men home from months of watery weariness, nights of toil and darkness, maddened by the irritating charm of the music and the delicious modernity of Kate's figure and dress, looked as if they were going to precipitate themselves from the galleries. Was she not the living reality of the figures posted over the hammocks in oil-smelling cabins, the prototype of the short-skirted damsels that decorated the empty match-boxes which they preserved and gazed at under the light of the stars?

Her success was enormous, and she was forced to sing

'Look at me here!'

five times before her friends would allow the piece to proceed. At the end of the act she received an ovation. Two reporters of the local newspapers obtained permission to come behind to see her. London engagements were spoken of, and in the general enthusiasm someone talked about grand opera. Even her fellow artists forgot their jealousies, and in the nervous excitement of the moment complimented her highly. Beaumont, anxious to kick down her rival, declared, 'That, to say the least of it, it was a better rendering of the part than Leslie's.' And on hearing this, Bret, whose forte was not repartee, moved away; Mortimer, in his least artificial manner, said that it was not bad for a beginning and that she'd get on if she worked at it. Dubois strutted and spoke learnedly of how the part had been played in France, and he was pleased to trace by an analysis which was difficult to follow a resemblance between Kate and Madame Judic.

The second act went equally well. And after seeing the ghosts she got a bouquet thrown to her, so cheekily did she sing the refrain:

'For a regiment of soldiers wouldn't make me afraid.'

She had therefore now only to maintain her prestige to the end, and when she had got her encore for the cider song, and had been recalled before the curtain at the end of the third act, with unstrung nerves she wandered to her dressing-room, thinking of what Dick would say when they got home. But the pleasures of the evening were not over yet: there was the supper, and a

s she came down from her dressing-room she whispered to Montgomery in the wings that they hoped to see him at their place later on. He thanked her and said he would be very glad to come in a little later on, but he had some music to copy now and must away, and feeling a little disappointed that he had to leave she walked up and down the rough boards, stepping out of the way of the scene-shifters. 'By your leave, ma'am,' they cried, going by her with the long swinging wings. She was glad now that Montgomery had left her, for alone she could relive distinctly every moment of the performance.

As the chorus-girls crossed the stage they stopped to compliment her with a few mechanical words and a hard smile. Kate thanked them and returned to her dream all aglow and absorbed in remembrances of her success. The word 'success' returned in her thoughts like the refrain of a song. Yes, she had succeeded. Wherever she went she would be admired. There was something to live for at last.

The T-light flared, and she stopped and began to wonder at the invention, so absurd did it seem; and then feeling that such thoughts were a waste of time, she took up the thread of her memories and had just begun to enjoy again a certain round of applause when Beaumont and Dolly Goddard awoke her with the question, had she seen Dick? Kate tried to remember. A scene-shifter going by said that he had seen Mr. Lennox leave the theatre some twenty minutes ago.

'I suppose he will come back for me,' Kate said; 'or perhaps I'd better go on? Are you coming my way?'

Beaumont and Dolly said they were and proposed that they should pop into a pub before closing time. Kate hesitated to accept the invitation, but Beaumont insisted, and as it was a question of drinking to the night's success she consented to accompany them.

'No, not here,' said Beaumont, shoving the swing-doors an inch or so apart: 'it's too full. I'll show you the way round by the side entrance.'

And giggling, the girls slipped into the private apartment.

'What will you have, dear?' asked Beaumont in an apologetic whisper.

'I think I'll have a whisky.'

'You'll have the same, Dolly?'

'Scotch or Irish?' asked the barman.

The girls consulted a moment and decided in favour of Irish.

With nods and glances, the health of Serpolette was drunk, and then fearing to look as if she were sponging, Kate insisted on likewise standing treat. Fortunately, when the second round had been drunk, closing time was announced by the man in the shirtsleeves, and bidding her friends good-bye, Kate stood in the street trying to think if she ought to return to the theatre to look after Dick or go home and find him there.

She decided on the latter alternative and walked slowly along the street. A chill wind blew up from the sea, and the sudden transition from the hot atmosphere of the bar brought the fumes of the whisky to her head and she felt a little giddy. An idea of drunkenness suggested itself; it annoyed her, and repulsing it vehemently, her thoughts somewhat savagely fastened on to Dick as the culprit. 'Where had he gone?' she asked, at first curiously, but at each repetition she put the question more sullenly to herself. If he had come back to fetch her she would not have been led into going into the public-house with Beaumont; and, irritated that any shadow should have fallen on the happiness of the evening, she walked sturdily along until a sudden turn brought her face to face with her lover.

'Oh!' he said, starting. 'Is that you, Kate? I was just cutting back to the theatre to fetch you.'

'Yes, a nice time you've kept me waiting,' she answered; but as she spoke she recognized the street they were in as the one in which Leslie lived. The blood rushed to her face, and tearing the while the paper fringe of her bouquet, she said, 'I know very well where you've been to! I want no telling. You've been round spending your time with Leslie.'

'Well,' said Dick, embarrassed by the directness with which she divined his errand, 'I don't see what harm there was in that; I really thought that I ought to run and see how she was.'

Struck by the reasonableness of this answer, Kate for the moment remained silent, but a sudden remembrance forced the anger that was latent in her to her head, and facing him again she said:

'How dare you tell me such a lie! You know very well you went to see her because you like her, because you love her.'

Dick looked at her, surprised.

'I assure you, you're mistaken,' he said. But at that moment Bret passed them in the street, hurrying towards Leslie's. The meeting was an unfortunate one, and it sent a deeper pang of jealousy to Kate's heart.

'There,' she said, 'haven't I proof of your baseness? What do you say to that?'

'To what?'

'Don't pretend innocence. Didn't you see Bret passing? You choose your time nicely to pay visits-just when he should be out.'

'Oh!' said Dick, surprised at the ingenuity of the deduction. 'I give you my word that such an idea never occurred to me.'

But before he could get any further with his explanation Kate again cut him short, and in passionate words told him he was a monster and a villain. So taken aback was he by this sudden manifestation of temper on the part of one in whom he did not suspect its existence, that he stopped, to assure himself that she was not joking. A glance sufficed to convince him; and making frequent little halts between the lamp-posts to argue the different points more definitely, they proceeded home quarrelling. But on arriving at the door, Kate experienced a moment of revolt that surprised herself. The palms of her hands itched, and consumed with a childish desire to scratch and beat this big man, she beat her little feet against the pavement. Dick fumbled at the lock. The delay still further irritated her, and it seemed impossible that she could enter the house that night.

'Aren't you coming in?' he said at last.

'No, not I. You go back to Miss Leslie; I'm sure she wants you to attend to her ankle.'

This was too absurd, and Dick expostulated gently. But nothing he could say was of the slightest avail, and she refused to move from the doorstep. Then began a long argument; and in brief phrases, amid frequent interruptions, all sorts of things were discussed. The wind blew very cold; Kate did not seem to notice it, but Dick shivered in his fat; and noticing his trembling she taunted him with it, and insultingly advised him to go to bed. Not knowing what answer to give to this, he walked into the sitting-room and sat down by the fire. How long would she remain on the doorstep? he asked himself humbly, until his reflections were interrupted by the sound of steps. It was Montgomery, and chuckling, Dick listened to him reasoning with Kate. The cold was so intense that the discussion could not be continued for long; and when the two friends entered Dick was prepared for a reconciliation. But in this he was disappointed. She merely consented to sit in the armchair, glaring at her lover. Montgomery tried to argue with her, but he could scarcely succeed in getting her to answer him, and it was not until he began to question Dick on the reason of the quarrel that she consented to speak; and then her utterances were rather passionate denials of her lover's statements than any distinct explanation. There were also long silences, during which she sat savagely picking at the paper of the bouquet, which she still retained. At last Montgomery, noticing the supper that no one cared to touch, said:

'Well, all I know is, that it's very unfortunate that you should have chosen this night of all others, the night of her success, to have a row. I expected a pleasant evening.'

'Success, indeed!' said Kate, starting to her feet. 'Was it for such a success as this that he took me away from my home? Oh, what a fool I was! Success! A lot I care for the success, when he has been spending the evening with Leslie.' And unable to contain herself any longer, she tore a handful of flowers out of her bouquet and threw them in Dick's face. Handful succeeded handful, each being accompanied by a shower of vehement words. The two men waited in wonderment, and when passionate reproaches and spring flowers were alike exhausted, a flood of tears and a rush into the next room ended the scene.

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