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   Chapter 25 No.25

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 30388

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Next morning Kate was duly repentant and begged Dick to forgive her for all she had said and done. She told him that she loved him better than anything in the world, and she persuaded him that if she had taken a drop too much, it was owing to jealousy, and not to any liking for the drink itself.

Dick adopted the theory willingly (every man is reluctant to believe that his wife is a drunkard), and deceived by the credulity with which he had accepted the excuse, Kate resolved to conquer her jealousy, and if she could not conquer it, she would endure it. Never would she seek escape from it through spirit again. And had she remained in Manchester, or had she even been placed in surroundings that would have rendered the existence of a fixed set of principles possible, she might have cured herself of her vice. But before two months her engagement at the Prince's came to an end, and Dick's at the Royal very soon followed. They then passed into other companies, the first of which dealt with Shakespearean revivals. Dick played Don John successfully in Much Ado About Nothing, the Ghost in Hamlet, the Friar in Romeo and Juliet. Kate on her side represented with a fair amount of success a series of second parts, such as Rosalind in Romeo, Bianca in Othello, Sweet Ann Page in the Merry Wives. It is true there were times when her behaviour was not all that could be desired, sometimes from jealousy, sometimes from drink; generally from a mixture of the two; but on the whole she managed very cleverly, and it was not more than whispered, and always with a good-natured giggle, that Mrs. Lennox was not averse to a glass.

From the Shakespearean they went to join a dramatic company, where houses were blown up, and ships sank amid thunder and lightning. Dick played a desperate villain, and Kate a virtuous parlourmaid, until one night, having surprised him in the act of kissing the manager's wife, she ran off to the nearest pub, and did not return until she was horribly intoxicated, and staggered on to the stage calling him the vilest names, accusing him at the same time of adultery, and pointing out the manager's wife as his paramour. There were shrieks and hysterics, and Dick had great difficulty in proving his innocence to the angry impresario. He spoke of his honour and a duel, but as the lady in question was starring, the benefit of the doubt had to be granted her, and on these grounds the matter was hushed up. But after so disgraceful a scandal it was impossible for the Lennoxes to remain in the company. Dick was very much cut up about it, and without even claiming his week's salary, he and his wife packed up their baskets and boxes and returned to Manchester. And there he entered into a quantity of speculations, of the character of which she had not the least idea; all she knew was, that she never saw him from one end of the day to the other. He was out of the place at ten o'clock in the morning, and never returned before twelve at night. These hours of idleness and solitude were hard to bear, and Kate begged of Dick to get her an engagement. But he was afraid of another shameful scene, and always gave her the same answer-that he had as yet heard of nothing, but as soon as he did he would let her know. She didn't believe him, but she had to submit, for she could never muster up courage to go and look for anything herself, and the long summer days passed wearily in reading the accounts of the new companies, and the new pieces produced. This sedentary life, and the effects of the brandy, which she could now no longer do without, soon began to tell upon her health, and the rich olive complexion began to fade to sickly yellow. Even Dick noticed that she was not looking well; he said she required change of air, and a few days after, he burst into the room and told her gaily that he had just arranged a tour to go round the coast of England and play little comic sketches and operettas at the pier theatres. This was good news, and the next few days were fully occupied in trying over music, making up their wardrobes, and telegraphing to London for the different books from which they would make their selections. A young man whom Dick had heard singing in a public-house proved a great hit. He wrote his own words, some of which were considered so funny that at Scarborough and Brighton he frequently received a couple of guineas for singing a few songs at private houses after the public entertainment. Afterwards he appeared at the Pavilion, and for many years supplied the axioms and aphorisms that young Toothpick and Crutch was in the habit of using to garnish the baldness of his native speech.

For a time the sea proved very beneficial to Kate's health, but the never-ending surprises and expectations she was exposed to finished by so straining and sharpening her nerves that the stupors, the assuagements of drink, became, as it were, a necessary make-weight. Her love for Dick pressed upon and agonized her; it was like a dagger whose steel was being slowly reddened in the flames of brandy, and in this subtilization of the brain the remotest particles of pain detached themselves, until life seemed to her nothing but a burning and unbearable frenzy. She did not know what she wanted of him, but with a longing that was nearly madness she desired to possess him wholly; she yearned to bury her poor aching body, throbbing with the anguish of nerves, in that peaceful hulk of fat, so calm, so invulnerable to pain, marching amid, and contented in, its sensualities, as a gainly bull grazing amid the pastures of a succulent meadow.

He was never unkind to her; the soft sleek manner that had won her remained ever the same, but she would have preferred a blow. It would have been something to have felt the strength of his hand upon her. She wanted an emotion; she longed to be brutalized. She knew when she tortured him with reproaches she was alienating from herself any affection he might still bear for her; but she found it impossible to restrain herself. There seemed to be a devil within her that goaded her until all power of will ceased, and against her will she had to obey its behests. A blow might exorcise this spirit. Were he to strike her to the ground she thought she might still be saved; but, alas! he remained as kind and good-natured as ever; and to disguise her drunkenness she had to exaggerate her jealousy. The two were now mingled so thoroughly in her head that she could scarcely distinguish one from the other. She knew there were women all around him; she could see them ogling him out of the little boxes at the side of the stage. How they could be such beasts, she couldn't conceive. They stood for hours behind the scenes waiting for him, and she was told they had come for engagements. Baskets of food, pork pies and tongue, came for him, but these she pitched out of the window; and she soundly boxed the ears of one little wretch, whom she had found loitering about the stage-door. Kate was right sometimes in her suspicions, sometimes wrong, but in every case they accentuated the neurosis, occasioned by alcohol, from which she was suffering. Still, by some extraordinary cunning, she contrived for some time to regulate her drinking so that it should not interfere with business, and on the rare occasions when Dick had to apologize to the public for her non-appearance she insisted that it was not her fault; and from a mixture of vanity and a wish to conceal his wife's shame from himself, Dick continued to persuade himself that his wife had no real taste for drink, and never touched it except when these infernal fits of jealousy were upon her. But the words that had come into his mind-'except when these infernal fits of jealousy are upon her'-called up many vivid memories; one especially confounded him. He had seen her frightened to cross the dressing-room lest she might fall, glancing from the table to the chair, calculating the distance. It was on his lips to ask her if she did not feel too ill to appear that day: that perhaps it would be better for him to go before the curtain and apologize to the public. But he had not dared to say anything, and to his astonishment she was able to overcome the influence of the drink (if she had taken any), and he had never heard her sing and dance better. How she had managed it he did not know. 'All the same,' he said, 'drink will get the upper hand of her and conquer her if she doesn't make up her mind to conquer it. The day will come when she will not be able to go on the stage, or will go on and fall down.' Dick shut his eyes to exclude from them the horrible spectacle. She would then be an unmitigated burden on his hands. 'Not a pleasant prospect', he said to himself.

He had now been in the provinces for some years and had lived down the memory of many disastrous managements. He had managed the tour of the Morton and Cox's Opera Company very successfully till the crash came. 'But it will be the success that will be remembered and not the crash when I return to London. Many changes must have happened in town. Many new faces and many old faces that absence will make new again. If only Kate were not so jealous. If I could cure her of jealousy I could cure her of drink.' And he thought of all the notices she had had for Clairette, for Serpolette, for Olivette. He would like to see her play the Duchess. At that moment his thoughts returned to the last time he had seen her, about half an hour ago; the memory was not a pleasant one, and he was glad that he had run out of the house and come down to the pier. And in the silence and solitude of the pier at midday he asked himself again why he should not return to town and take his chance of getting into a new company or being sent out to manage another provincial tour. In London he might be able to persuade his wife to go into a home, and he fell to thinking of the men and women who he had heard had been cured of drunkenness. His thoughts melted into dreams and then, passing suddenly out of dreams into words, he said: 'She will never consent to go into a home, and if she did she would only be thinking all the time that I'd put her there so that I might be after another woman.' His thoughts were interrupted by a lancinating pain in his feet, and he withdrew into the shade, and resting the heel of the right boot on the toe of the left, a position that freed him from pain for the time being, he looked round and seeing everywhere a misted sky filled with an inner radiance, he said: 'To-day will be the hottest day we've had yet, and there won't be a dozen people in the theatre; everybody will be too hot to leave their houses.' There was languor in the incoming wave. 'We shan't have five pounds in the theatre,' he muttered to himself, and catching sight of one of the directors he continued, 'And those fellows won't think of the heat, but will put down the falling off in the audience to our performance. Never,' he added after a pause, 'have I seen the pier so empty,' and he wondered who the woman was coming towards him.

A tall, gaunt woman of about forty-five whose striding gait caused a hooped and pleated skirt of green silk, surmounted by a bustle, to sway like a lime-tree in a breeze, wore a bodice open in front, with short sleeves, the fag end of some other fashion, but the long draggled-tailed feather boa belonged to the eighties, as did the Marie Stuart bonnet. Her blackened eyebrows and a thickly painted face attracted Dick's attention from afar, and when she approached nearer he was struck by the dark, brilliant, restless eyes. 'A strange and exalted being,' he said to himself. 'An authoress perhaps,' for he noticed that she carried some papers in her hand; 'or a poet,' he added; and prompted by his instinct he began to see in her somebody that might be turned to account, and before long he was thinking how he might introduce himself to her.

'She's forgotten her parasol; I might borrow one for her from the girl at the bar,' and the project seeming good to him he rose, and with a specially large movement of the arm lifted his hat from his head.

'You will excuse me, I hope, madam, addressing you, and if I do so it is because I am in an official capacity here, but may I offer you a parasol?'

'It's very kind of you,' she replied with a smile that lighted up her large mouth, dispersing its ugliness.

'She's got a fine set of teeth,' Dick said to himself, and he answered that he would borrow a parasol for her in the theatre.

'It's very kind of you,' she returned, smiling largely and becomingly upon him. 'It's true I forgot to bring a parasol with me, and the sun is very fierce at this time. It will be kind of you,' and much gratified that his proposal had been so graciously received, he hobbled away in the direction of the theatre, to return a few moments after with the bar girl's parasol, which he had borrowed and which he opened and handed to the lady.

'Might I ask,' she said, 'if you're one of the directors of the theatre?'

'No,' he answered, 'I'm an actor.'

'An actor in this theatre,' she replied. 'But they only sing trivial songs and dance in this theatre, and you look to me like one of Shakespeare's imaginations. Henry the Eighth, almost any one of the Henries. King John.'

'Not Romeo,' Dick interposed.

'Perhaps not Romeo. Romeo was but sixteen or seventeen, eighteen at the most. But when you were eighteen….'

'Yes,' Dick answered, 'I was thin enough then.'

'But you must not disparage yourself. Heroes are not always thin. Hamlet was fat and scant of breath. I can see you as Hamlet, whereas to cast you for Falstaff would be too obvious.'

'I've played Falstaff,' Dick replied, 'but I never could do much with the part, and I never saw anyone who could. The lines are very often too high-falutin for the character, and they don't seem to come out, no matter who plays it; the critics look on it as the best acting part, but in truth it is the worst.'

'Macduff would fit you, no; Lear,' the lady cried.

Dick thought he would like to have a shot at the king, and they were soon talking about a Shakespearean theatre devoted to the performance of Shakespearean plays. 'A theatre,' she said, 'that would devote itself to the representation of all the heroes in the world; those who spoke noble thoughts and performed noble deeds, thought and deed encompassing each other, instead of which we have a thousand theatres devoted to the representations of the fashions of the moment. So I'm forced to come here at midday, for at midday there is solitude and sacred silence, or else the clashing of waves. Here at midday I can fancy myself alone with my heroes.'

'And who are your heroes, may I ask?' said Dick.

'Many are in Shakespeare,' she answered, 'and many are here in this manuscript. The heroes of the ancient world, when men were nearer to the gods than they are now. For men,' she added, 'in my belief, are not moving towards the Godhead, but away from it.'

'And who are the heroes that you've written about?' Dick asked, and fearing she would enter into too long an explanation he asked if the manuscript she held in her ha

nd was a play.

'No, a poem,' she answered. 'I'm studying it for recitation, one I'm going to recite after my lecture at the Working Men's Club; and the subject of my lecture is the inherent nobility of man, and the necessity of man worship. Women have turned from men and are occupied now with their own aspirations, losing sight thereby of the ideal that God gave them. My poem is a sort of abstract, an epitome, a compendium of the lecture itself.'

Dick did not understand, but the fact that a lady was going in for recitation argued that she was interested in theatricals, and with his ears pricked like a hound who has got wind of something, he said with a sweet smile that showed a whole row of white teeth:

'Being an actor myself, I will take the liberty of asking you to allow me to look at your poem, and perhaps if you're studying for recitation I may be of use to you.'

'Of the very greatest use,' the lady answered, and handed him her manuscript; 'one of a set of classical cartoons,' she added.

'Humanity in large lines,' he replied.

'How quickly you understand,' she rapped out; 'removed altogether from the tea-table in subject and in metre. What have you got to say, my hero, to me about my rendering of these lines?

'"The offspring of Neptune and Terra, daughters of earth

and ocean,

Dowered with fair faces of woman, capping the bodies

of vultures;

Armed with sharp, keen talons; crushing and rending

and slaying,

Blackening and blasting, defiling, spoiling the meats

of all banquets;

Plundering, perplexing, pursuing, cursing the lives of

our heroes,

Ever the Harpyiae flourish-just as a triumph of evil."'

'Hardly anything; and yet if I may venture a criticism-would you mind passing your manuscript on to me for a moment? May I suggest an emendation that will render the recitation more easy and more effective?'

'Certainly you may.'

'Then,' Dick continued, 'I would drop the words-"just as a triumph of evil," and run on-"flourish from childhood, ensnaring the noble, the brave, and the loyal, spreading their nets for destruction,"

'"Harpyiae flourish in ball-rooms, breathing fierce breath

that is poison

Over the promise of manhood, over the faith and the

lovelight

That glows in the hearts of our bravest for all of their

kind that is weaker--"

'All that follows,' Dick added, 'will be recited without emphasis until you come to these two magnificent lines:

'"Harpyiae stand by our altars, Harpyiae sit by our

hearthstones,

Harpyiae suckle our children, Harpyiae ravish our

nation," etc.'

Dick finished with a grand gesture.

'I think you're right. Yes, I understand that a point can be given to these verses that I had not thought of before. I hope my poem touched a chord in your heart? Do you approve of my manner of writing the hexameters?'

'I think the idea very fine, but--'

'But?'

'If you will permit me?'

'Certainly.'

'Well, there are questions of elocution that I would like to speak to you about. I've to run away now, but we're sure to meet again.'

'I'm on the pier every day at noon, or you will find me in my hotel at five. I hope you'll come, for I should like to avail myself of your instruction.'

'Thank you; I hope to have the pleasure of calling upon you to-morrow afternoon. Good-bye.'

'You don't know my name,' she cried after him. 'Heroes are full of forgetfulness and naturally, but in this tea-table world we can't get on without names and addresses. Will you take my card?'

Dick took the card, thanked her and turned suddenly away.

'Like a man filled with disquiet,' the lady said, and she watched the burly actor hurrying up the pier. 'Is this woman coming to meet him?' she asked herself as Dick hurried away still faster, for in the distance the woman coming down the pier seemed to him like his wife, and if Kate caught him talking to a woman on the pier all chance of doing any business with his new acquaintance would be at an end. But the woman who had just passed him by was not Kate, and the thought crossed his mind that he might return to his new acquaintance with safety. But on the whole it seemed to him better to wait until to-morrow. To-morrow he would find out all about her. 'Her name,' he said, and taking the card out of his pocket he read: 'Mrs. Forest, Mother Superior of the Yarmouth Convent, Alexandra Hotel, Hastings.' 'Mother Superior of a Convent! I should never have thought it. But if she is a nun, why isn't she in a habit? Classical cartoons and nunneries. I think this time I've hit upon a strange specimen, one of the strangest I've ever met, which is saying a great deal, for I've met with a good few in my time. It will be better to tear up her card, for if Kate should find it--'

And then, dismissing Mrs. Forest from his mind, he wondered if he should find Kate drunk or sober. 'Quite sober,' he said to himself as soon as he crossed the threshold; and in the best of humours his wife greeted him, and taking his arm they went down to the pier and gave an entertainment that was appreciated by a fairly large audience.

'Why didn't she ask me to come to her at five to-day?' he asked himself as he returned home with his wife. 'She may fall through my fingers,' and he would have gone straight away to Mrs. Forest, if he had been able to rid himself of Kate.

'You'll take me out to tea, Dick?' she said, and to keep her sober he took her to tea. For the nonce Kate drunk would have suited him better than Kate sober, and he dared not go down to the pier next morning in search of Mrs. Forest, it being more than likely that Kate might take it into her head to sun herself on the pier, so he decided to wait; the pier was too dangerous. If he weren't interrupted by Kate the directors might see them together, and they might know Mrs. Forest and tell her that he was a married man. No, he'd just keep his appointment with her at five. But to get rid of Kate required a deep plan. It was laid and succeeded, and at five he arrived at the Alexandra Hotel.

'Is Mrs. Forest in?'

The hall porter told the page boy to take Mr. Lennox up to Mrs. Forest's rooms.

'All this smells money,' Dick said to himself in the lift.

The page boy threw open the door, and after walking through a long corridor the boy knocked at a door, and Dick walked into a red twilight in which he caught sight of a green dress in a distant corner.

'I hope you're not one of those people who require the glare of the sun always. I like the sun in its proper place out of doors,' and while thinking of an appropriate answer Dick strove to find his way through the numerous pieces of furniture littered over the carpet.

'Come and sit on the sofa beside me.'

'If you'll allow me,' he answered, 'I will sit in this armchair. I shall be able to devote myself more completely to the hearing of your poem.'

It was not polite to refuse to sit beside the lady, but Dick contrived to convey that her presence would trouble his intellectual enjoyment, and the slight displeasure which the refusal had caused vanished out of the painted face. This first success almost succeeded in screwing up Dick's courage to the point of asking her if he might remove the flower vase that stood on the cabinet behind him, but he did not dare, and at every moment he seemed to recognize a new scent. An odour of burning pastilles drifted from a distant corner into a zone of patchouli in which the lady seemed to have encircled herself and which her every movement seemed to spread in more and more violent flavours, till Dick began to think he would not be able to hold out till the end of the lady's narrative. Patchouli always gave him a headache, but the word 'opera' restored him to himself, and with lips quivering like a cat watching a sparrow he heard that the subject of her opera was derived from her own life; and telling him that it could not be understood without a relation of the events that had given it birth, she drew her legs up on the sofa, and leaning her head against the back commenced in a low, cooing, but not disagreeable voice to tell of her first love adventure. 'I might almost call my departure for Bulgaria, some ten years ago, a spiritual adventure,' she said.

The departure for Bulgaria seemed full of interest, but from Dick's point of view the leading up to the departure was unduly prolonged, and he found it difficult to listen with any show of interest to Mrs. Forest's assurances that until she met the Bulgarian she had thought that babies were found in parsley-beds or under gooseberry-bushes, and this innocence of mind was so inherent in her that the Bulgarian had not succeeded altogether in robbing her of it. 'Nor, indeed, did he ever attempt to do so,' she continued. 'Our friendship was founded purely on the intellect.'

This admission was a disappointment to Dick, who had looked forward to the story of a novel love adventure which might easily be worked into a comic opera, Bulgaria offering a suitable background. With many pretty smiles he tried to lead the lady into the real story of her past, but Mrs. Forest insisted so well that he was fain to believe that there had been no past in her life suitable to comic opera. Her Bulgarian adventure had been animated by love of liberty and a noble desire to free an oppressed race from the ignoble rule of the Turks; 'massacres,' she said, 'full of nameless horrors.'

Dick would have liked her to name these horrors, but before he could ask her to do so she was telling him of the instinct in every woman to mother something. The Bulgarians had appealed to her sympathies, and she had helped to bring about their liberation by her poetry. In three years she had learnt the language and had composed two volumes of poems in it.

'I've looked out copies of my Bulgarian poems for you,' and she leaned over the edge of the sofa towards a small table. The movement disarranged her skirt, and Dick's eyes were regaled by the show of a thick shapeless leg, 'doubtless swarthy,' he said to himself.

'The title of the first volume,' she said, handing him the books, 'is, Songs of a Stranger. My friend the Bulgarian' (and she mentioned an unpronounceable name) 'contributed a preface. The second volume is entitled, New Songs by the Stranger. You will find a translation appended to each.'

Dick promised that he would read the poems as soon as he got home, and begged Mrs. Forest to proceed with her interesting story of the war in which she had lost her great friend, her spiritual adventure, as she called him.

From Bulgaria she had set forth on a long journey, visiting many parts of China, returning home full of love for Eastern civilization, and regret that Western influence would soon make an end of it. 'But,' she said, 'when I think of my own life, my narrative seems but a faint echo of it all; only a fragment of it appears, whereas, if I could tell the whole of it--'

But Dick inclined to the belief that her genius was dramatic rather than narrative, and to bring the autobiography to an end, he asked her how she had come to be the Mother Superior of the Yarmouth Convent. 'If I can only get her to cut the cackle and get to the 'osses,' he said to himself, but this was not easy to do. Mrs. Forest had to relate her socialistic adventures, her engagement to Edgar Horsley.

'For three years,' she said, 'I was engaged to him, and at the end of this time it seemed to me that we must come to an understanding. He was talking of going to Jamaica, and to go to Jamaica with him we would have to be married. So I went down to where he was staying in the country, a cottage in Somersetshire, at the end of a very pretty lane.'

'Good God! if she's going to describe the landscape to me,' said Dick to himself. But Mrs. Forest had no eye for the appearance of trees showing against the sky, and she was quickly at the cottage door, which was opened to her, she said, by a suspicious-looking woman, who said, 'I think I've heard of you. Mr. Horsley is out, but you can come in and wait,' 'and in about half an hour he came in and introduced me to the woman who had opened the door to me. "Isabel" is all that I can remember of her name. "Isabel," he said, "has been living with me for the last ten years, but if you like to come with us to Jamaica you can join us." This seemed to me to be an inacceptable proposition. "What you propose to me," I said, "is unthinkable," and I left the house, and have not seen or heard of Mr. Edgar Horsley since. I've looked at water, I've looked at poison, and I've looked at daggers.'

Dick asked her why she had meditated suicide and she answered:

'Was not such an end to a three years' engagement sufficient to inspire in any woman a thought of suicide? And I'm very exceptional.'

A great deal of Mrs. Forest's life had been unfolded; the only thing that remained in obscurity was how she had come to be the Mother Superior of the Yarmouth Convent, and to make that plain, she said it would be necessary to tell the story of her conversion to the Catholic faith. 'But that was after the convent; the convent was intended for the reformation of dipsomaniacs, female drunkards,' she said; 'but it was afterwards that I became a Roman Catholic.'

Dick had no wish to hear what dogma it was that had tempted her, but it amused him as he returned home to think of all the strange things that Mrs. Forest had told him; one thing especially amused him, that her real interest in Catholicism was the confessional. 'How one does get back to oneself in all these things,' he muttered as he panted up the hot steep road. 'A convent for the reformation of female drunkards,' he repeated. 'It's very strange: she can't know anything about my wife. A strange woman,' he continued, and fell to thinking if all that she had told him was the truth, or if it was one of those stories that people imagine about themselves, and imagine so vividly that after a few years they begin to believe that everything they have told has befallen them. He pulled the books from his pocket; they were evidently written in a strange language, but there were people who could learn languages and could do nothing else. Her Bulgarian poetry could not be better than her English, and he knew what that was like. 'I suppose as soon as she hears I'm married, and she's sure to find out sooner or later, she will be off on some other back. But is this altogether sure?' He had not walked many steps before he remembered that the lecture she was giving at the Working Men's Club was on the chastity of the marriage state; moreover, she had admitted to him that the Bulgarian adventure was a spiritual one. 'I should say she was a woman with a big temperament which must have been worth gratifying when she went away with that Bulgarian; I wouldn't have minded being in his skin. She hasn't forgotten that she was once a beautiful girl, that's the worst of it, she hasn't forgotten,' and Dick remembered that at parting she was a little demonstrative, saying to him on the staircase: 'But we aren't parting for long. You will be here tomorrow at my door at the same hour.'

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