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   Chapter 20 No.20

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 22589

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The ebb of the company's prosperity dated from Kate's marriage. Somehow things did not seem to go well after. In the first place the production of Olivette was not a success. Mortimer was drunk, did not know his words, and went 'fluffing all over the shop.' Kate, excited with champagne and compliments, sang the wrong music on one occasion; and to complete their misfortunes, the Liverpool public did not in the least tumble to Miss Beaumont's rendering of the part of the heroine. The gallery thought she was too fat, the papers said she was not sprightly enough, and on Wednesday night the old Cloches had to be put up. By this failure the management sustained a heavy loss. They had laid out a lot of money on dresses, property and scenery, all of which were now useless to them; and the other two operas were beginning to droop and lose their drawing power, having been on the road for the last three years. The country, too, was suffering from a great commercial crisis, and no one cared to go to the theatre. In many of the towns they visited strikes were on, and the people were convulsed with discussions, projects for resistance, and hopes of bettering their condition. Great social problems, the tyranny of capital, and such-like, occupied the minds of men, and there was naturally little taste for the laughing nonchalance of La Fille de Madame Angot or the fooling of the Baillie in the Cloches. As forty thousand men had struck work, our band of travelling actors rolled out of Leeds, and they left it bearing with them only a reminiscence of empty benches, and street-corners crowded with idling, sullen-faced men. At Newcastle they were not more fortunate, at Wigan they fared even worse, and at Hull it was equally bad. Gaiety seemed to have fled out of the North; the public-house and the platform drew away the pit and the gallery; the frequenters of the boxes and dress-circle remained at home, to talk around their firesides of their jeopardized fortunes. When the workers grow weary of work a hard time sets in for the sellers of amusement, and the fate of Morton and Cox's Operatic Company proved no exception to the rule. Money was made nowhere, and every Friday night a cheque for five-and-twenty pounds had to be sent down from London to make up the deficit in the salary list. Nevertheless for two months matters went on very smoothly. The remembrance of large profits made in preceding years was still fresh in the minds of Messrs. Morton and Cox, and they had not yet begun to grumble; but an unintermittent drain of twenty-five to forty pounds a week keeps a man from his sleep at night, and after a big failure in the city, in which Mr. Cox was muleted to the extent of a couple of thousand pounds, he wrote to Dick suggesting that he had better look out for another opera. This was welcome news to Montgomery; but no sooner had Dick raised him to the seventh heaven of bliss, than he had to knock him down to earth again: a letter arrived from Mr. Cox, saying that no opera was to be put up; that it would be useless to try anything new in such bad times; they had better try to reduce expenses instead.

'Reduce expenses? How are we to reduce expenses except by cutting down the salaries?'

'I'm sure I don't know,' said Montgomery; 'and the expense of mounting my piece would be very slight.'

Without attempting to discuss so vain a question, Dick said, 'I must speak to Hayes.'

But Hayes only pulled his silky whiskers, blinked his Chinese eyes, drank three glasses of whisky, and changed the position of his black bag several times, and the matter was scarcely alluded to again until the following fortnight, when Dick found himself forced to write to Mr. Cox demanding a cheque for thirty-five pounds, to meet Saturday's treasury and the current expenses of the following week. The cheque arrived, but the letter that came with it read very ominously indeed. It read as follows:

'DEAR MR. LENNOX,-I enclose you the required amount; but of course you will understand that this cannot go on. I intend running down to see you on Tuesday evening. Will you have the company assembled to meet me at the theatre, as I have an important explanation to make to them.'

Dick had too much experience in theatrical speculations not to know that this must mean either a reduction of salaries or a break-up of the tour; but as two whole days still stood between him and the evil hour, it did not occur to him to give the matter another thought, and it was not until they returned home after the theatre, to prepare for the Sunday journey, that he spoke to Kate of the letter he had received.

Their portmanteaus were spread out before them, and Kate was counting her petticoats when Dick said:

'I'll tell you what, Kate, I shouldn't be surprised if the company broke up shortly, and we all found ourselves obliged to look out for new berths.'

'What do you mean?' she said, with a startled look on her face.

'Well, only that I think that Morton and Cox are beginning to get tired of losing money. As you know, we've been doing very bad business lately, and I think they'll give us all the sack.'

'Give us all the sack!' Kate repeated.

'Yes,' said Dick, pursuing his own reflections 'I'm afraid it's so. It's a deuced bore, for we were very pleasant together. But I don't think I showed you the letter I got this morning. What's the matter, dear?'

Pale as the petticoat at her feet, Kate stood with raised eyebrows and hands that twitched at the folds of her dress.

'Oh, Dick! what shall we do? We shall starve; we shan't have any place to go to!'

'Starve!' said Dick in astonishment. 'Not if I know it. We shall easily find something else to do. Besides, I don't care if he does break up the tour. I believe there's a good bit of coin to be made out of the pier theatre at Blackpool. I've been thinking of it for some time-with a good entertainment, you know; and then there's the drama Harding did for me-a version of Wilkie Collins's story-The Yellow Mask-devilish good it is, too. I was reading it the other day. We might take a company out with it. Let me see, whom could we get to play in it?' And, sitting over his portmanteau, the actor proceeded to cast the piece, commenting as he went along on the qualifications of the artists, and giving verbal sketches of the characters in the play. 'Beaumont would play Virginie first rate, you know-a strong, determined, wicked woman, who stops at nothing. I'd like to play the father; Mortimer would be very funny as the uncle. We'll have to write in something for you. You couldn't take the sympathetic little girl yet; you haven't had enough experience.'

The expenses of scenery, properties, and posting were gone into, and while listening to the different estimates Kate looked at her husband vaguely, and plunged in a sort of painful wonderment, asking herself how standing on the brink of ruin he could calmly make plans for the future. But to the actor, whose life had never run for a year without getting entangled in some difficult knot or other, the present hitch did not give the slightest uneasiness. A strange town to face and half a crown in his pocket might cause him some temporary embarrassment, but a hundred pounds at the bank, and the notoriety of having been for two years the manager of a travelling company, was to Dick an exceptionally brilliant start in life, and it did not occur to him to doubt that he would hop into another shop as good as the one he had left. But as the woman had been engaged in none of these anxious battles for existence, the news of a threatened break-up of her world fell with a cruel shock upon her, and she experienced in an aggravated form the same dull nervous terror from which she had suffered in the early days when she had first joined the company, but then the full tide of love and prosperity bore their bark along, and quieted her fears. But now in the first puff of the first squall she saw herself like one wrecked and floating on a spar in a wide and unknown sea of trouble. Sitting on the bed where she would never sleep again, she watched Dick counting on his fingers and looking dreamily into the spaces of some impossible future, and asked herself what was to become of them. For the twentieth time since she had donned them the robes of the Bohemian fell from her, and she became again in instincts and tastes a middle-class woman longing for a home, a fixed and tangible fireside where she might sit in the evening by her husband's side, mending his shirts, after the work of the day. A bitter detestation of her wandering life rose to her head, and she longed to beg of her husband to give up theatricals, and try to find some other employment; and the next day it appeared to her more than usually sinful to drive to the station as the church bells were chiming, spending the hours, that should have been passed in praying, in playing 'nap,' smoking cigarettes, and talking of wigs, make-ups, choruses, and such-like. But apparently there was no help for it, and on Monday night, in her excitement, increased by the arrival of Mr. Cox, she could not help getting out of bed to beseech God to be merciful to them; her husband's heavy breathing often interrupted her, but it told her that he was her husband, and that was her only consolation.

It astonished her that he could sleep as he did, having in front of him the terrible to-morrow, when perhaps Mr. Cox would cast them adrift; and she trembled in every fibre when she stood on the stairs leading to the manager's room. There was a great crowd: the chorus-girls wedged themselves into a solid mass, and murmured good-mornings to each other; Mortimer told a long story from the top step; Dubois tried to talk of Balzac to Montgomery, who listened, puzzled and interested, fancying it was a question of a libretto; whilst Bret, till now silent as the dead, suddenly woke up to the conclusion that it would probably all end in a reduction of salaries. At last Dick appeared and called them into the presence of Mr. Cox. Whisky and water was on the table, and with the silky whiskers plunged in the black bag, Mr. Hayes fumbled aimlessly with many papers. The 'boss' looked very grave and twitched at a heavy moustache; and when they were all grouped about him, in his deepest and most earnest tones, he explained his misfortunes. For the last four months he had been forced to send down a weekly cheque of not less than five-and-twenty pounds; sometimes, indeed, the amount had run up to forty pounds. This, of course, could not go on for ever, he had not the Bank of England behind him. But talking of banks, although there was no reason why he should inflict on them an account of his bad luck, he could not refrain from saying that had it not been for a certain bank he should be forced to ask them to accept half salaries. The words brought a flush of indignation to Beaumont's cheeks. She made a slight movement, as if she were going to repudiate the suggestion violently, but the silence of those around calmed her, and she contented herself with murmuring to Dolly:

'This is an old dodge.'

'I will leave you now,' said Mr. Cox, 'to consult among yourselves as to whether you will accept my proposal, or if you would prefer me to break up

the tour at the end of the week, and pay you your fares back to London.'

As Mr. Cox left the room there was a murmur of inquiry from the chorus ladies, and one or two voices were heard above the rest saying that they did not know how they could manage on less than five-and-twenty shillings a week. These objections were soon silenced by Dick, who in a persuasive little speech explained that the reduction of salaries applied to the principals only.

'Then why derange these ladies and gentlemen by asking them to attend at this meeting?' said Mortimer.

To this question Dick made answer by telling the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus they might withdraw, and the discussion was resumed by those whom it concerned. Beaumont objected to everything. Bret spoke of going back to Liverpool. Dubois explained his opinions on the management of theatres in general, until Dick summoned him back to the point. Were they or were they not going to accept half salaries? At length the matter was decided by Mortimer getting upon a chair and shouting through his nose as through a pipe:

'I don't know if you're all fond of hot weather, but if you are you'll find it to your taste in London; all the theatres are closed, and the cats are baking on the tiles.'

This brought the argument to a pause, during which Beaumont remembered that grouse were shot in August, and settling her diamonds in her ears, she agreed that the tour was to be continued. A few more remarks were made, and then the party adjourned to a neighbouring 'pub.' to talk of opéra bouffes and bad business.

The next places they visited were Huddersfield and Bradford, but the houses they played to were so poor that Mr. Cox summoned a general meeting on the Sunday morning, and told them frankly that he could not go on losing money any longer; he would, however, lend them the dresses, and they might start a commonwealth if they liked. After much discussion it was decided to accept his offer, and the afternoon was spent in striving to decide how the business was to be carried on. A committee was at last formed consisting of Dick, Mortimer, Dubois, Montgomery, Bret, and Mr. Hayes, and they settled, as they went on to Halifax by an evening train, that the chorus was, hit or miss, to be paid in full, and the takings then divided among the principals proportionately to the salary previously received.

In the face of the bad times it was a risky experiment, and Williams, the agent in advance, was anxiously looked out for at the station. What did he think? Was there a chance of their doing a bit of business in the town? Were there bills up in all the public-houses? Williams did not at first understand this unusual display of eagerness, but when the commonwealth was explained to him, his face assumed as grey an expression as the pimples would allow it. He shoved his dust-eaten pot-hat on one side, scratched his thin hair, and after some pressing, admitted that he didn't think that they would do much good in the place; as far as he could see, everybody's ideas were on striking and politics; the general election especially was playing the devil with managers; at least that was what the company that had just left said.

This was chilling news, and, alas! each subsequent evening proved only the correctness of Mr. Williams's anticipations. Seven-pound houses were the rule. On Friday and Saturday they had two very fair pits, but this could not compensate for previous losses, and in the end, when all expenses were paid, only five-and-thirty shillings remained to be divided among the principals. Their next try was at Oldham, but matters grew worse instead of better, and on Saturday night five-and-twenty shillings was sorrowfully portioned out in equal shares. It did not amount to much more than half a crown apiece. Rochdale, however, was not far distant, and, still hoping that times would mend, Morton and Cox's band of travelling actors sped on their way, dreaming of how they could infuse new life into their mumming, and whip up the jaded pleasure-tastes of the miners. But for the moment comic songs proved weak implements in the search for ore, and the committee sitting in the green-room, used likewise as a dressing-room by the two ladies, counted out a miserable four-and-ninepence as the result of a week's hard labour.

Beaumont fumed before the small glass, arranging her earrings as if she anticipated losing them; Kate trembled and clung to her husband's arm, Montgomery cast sentimental glances of admiration at her, and Mortimer tried to think of something funny, while Dubois came to the point by asking:

'Well, what are you going to do with that four-and-ninepence? It isn't worth dividing. I suppose we'd better drink it.'

At the mention of drinks Mr. Hayes blinked and shifted the black bag from the chair to the ground.

'Yes, that's easily arranged,' said Dick, 'but what about the tour? I for one am not going on at four-and-ninepence a week.'

'Sp-pend-it-in drinks,' stuttered Mr. Hayes, awakening to a partial sense of the situation.

Everybody laughed, but in the pause that ensued, each returned to the idea that there was no use going on at four-and-ninepence a week.

'For we can't live on drink, although Beaumont can upon love,' said

Mortimer, determined to say something.

But the joke amused no one, and for some time only short and irrelevant sentences broke the long silences. At last Dick said:

'Well, then, I suppose we'd better break up the tour.'

To this proposal no one made much objection. Murmurs came from different sides that it was a great pity they should have to part company in this way after having been so long together. Montgomery and Dubois contributed largely to this part of the conversation, and through an atmosphere of whisky and soap-suds arose a soft penetrating poetry concerning the delights of friendship. It was very charming to think and speak in this way, but all hoped, with perhaps the exception of Montgomery, that no one would insist too strongly on this point, for in the minds of all new thoughts and schemes had already begun to germinate. Mortimer remembered a letter he had received from a London manager; Dubois saw himself hobnobbing again with the old 'pals' in the Strand; Bret silently dreamed of Miss Leslie's dyed hair and blue eyes, and of his chances of getting into the same company.

'Then, if it is decided to break up the tour, we must make a subscription to send the chorus back to London,' said Dick after a long silence.

Nobody till now had thought of these unfortunate people and their twenty-five shillings a week, but always ready to help a lame dog over a stile, Dick planked down two 'quid' and called on the others to do what they could in the same way. Mr. Hayes strewed the table instantly with the money he had in his pocket. Mortimer spoke about his wife and mentioned details of an intimate nature to show how hard up he was; he nevertheless stumped up a 'thin 'un.' Beaumont, rampant at the idea of 'parting,' contributed the same; indignant looks were levelled at her, and Dick continued to exhort his friends to be generous. 'The poor girls,' he declared, 'must be got home; it would never do to leave them starving in Lancashire.' Kate gave a sovereign of her savings, and in this way something over ten pounds was made up; with that Dick said he thought he could manage.

The trouble he took to manage everything was touching. On Sunday, when Kate was at church, he was down at the railway station trying to find out what were the best arrangements he could make. And on Monday morning when they were all assembled on the platform to bid good-bye to their fellow-workers, it was curious to see this huge man, who at a first impression would be taken for a mere mass of sensuality, rushing about putting buns and sandwiches in paper bags for his poor chorus-girls, encouraging them with kind words, and when the train began to move, waving them large and unctuous farewells with his big hat.

Since the first shock of the threatened break-up of the tour Kate had gradually grown accustomed to the idea and now wept in silence. Without precisely suffering from any pangs of fear for the future, an immense sadness seemed to ache within her very bones. All things were passing away. The flock of girls in whose midst she had lived was gone; a later train would take Mortimer to London; Bret was bidding them good-bye; Beaumont was consulting a Bradshaw. How sad it seemed! The theatre and artists were vanishing into darkness like a dream. Not a day, nor an hour, could she see in front of her.

'What shall we do now?' she whispered to Dick, as she trotted along by his side.

'Well, I haven't quite made up my mind. I was thinking last night that it wouldn't be a bad idea to make up a little entertainment-four or five of us-and see what we could do in the manufacturing towns. Lancashire is, you know, honeycombed with them. Our travelling expenses would amount to a mere nothing. We must have someone to operate on the piano. I wonder if Montgomery would care about coming with us.'

Kate thought that he would, and as she happened at that moment to catch sight of the long tails of the Newmarket coat at the other side of the station, she begged Dick to call to the erratic musician. No sooner was the proposition put forward than it was accepted, and in five minutes they were at luncheon in a 'pub,' arranging the details of the entertainment.

'We shall want an agent-in-advance, a bill-poster, or something of that kind,' said Montgomery.

'I've thought of that,' replied Dick; 'Williams is our man, he'll see to all that; and I don't know if you know, but he can sing a good song on his own account.'

'Can he? Well, then, we can't have anyone better-and what shall we take out?'

'Well, we must have a little operetta, and I don't think we can do better than Offenbach's Breaking the Spell.'

'Right you are,' said Montgomery, pulling out his pocket-book. 'Breaking the Spell, so far so good; now we must have a song or a character sketch to follow, and I don't think it would be a bad idea if we rehearsed a comedietta. What do you say to The Happy Pair?'

'Right you are, pencil it down, can't do better, it always goes well; and then I can sing between "The Men of Harlech."'

Montgomery looked a little awry at the idea of having to listen to 'The Men of Harlech,' sung by Dick, but in the discussion that followed as to what Kate was to do, 'The Men of Harlech' was forgotten.

As Dick anticipated, Williams declared himself delighted to accompany them in the double capacity of bill-poster and occasional singer; and after a fortnight's rehearsal at Rochdale, the Constellation Company started on its wanderings. Many drinks had been consumed in seeking for the name; many strange combinations of sound and sense had been rejected, and it was not until Dick began to draw lines on a piece of paper, affixing names to the end of each, that the word suggested itself. What joy! What rapture! A rush was made to the printers, and in a few hours the following bill was produced:

THE CONSTELLATION COMPANY.

MISS KATE D'ARCY.

*

|

MR. R. LENNOX.*----* MR. P. MONTGOMERY.

|

*

MR. B. WILLIAMS.

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