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   Chapter 25 THE DRAMATIST

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 16411

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


If Mrs. Elstree was Armorel's official and authorised companion, her private unpaid companion was Effie Wilmot. The official companion was resident in the chambers, and was seen with her charge at the theatres and concerts. The private unpaid companion went about with her all day long, sat with her in her own room, knew what she thought, and talked with her of the things she loved to discuss. So that, though the representative of Order and Propriety had less to do, the unpaid attachée had a much more lively time. Fortunately, the official companion was best pleased when there was nothing to do. In those days, when London was as yet an unknown land to both of them, the girls went together to see things. Nobody knows what a great quantity of things there are to see in London when you once set yourself seriously to explore this great unknown continent. Captain Magalhaens himself, crossing the Pacific Ocean for the first time, did not experience a more interesting and exciting time than these two girls in their walks in and about the great town, new to both. They were as ravenous as American tourists beginning their European round. And, like them, they consulted their Baedeker, their Hare, and their Peter Cunningham. Pictures there are, all in the West-End; museums, with every kind of treasure; historic houses-alas! not many; libraries; art galleries of all kinds; cathedrals, churches, ancient and modern; old streets, whose paving-stones are inscribed in the closest print with the most wonderful recollections; old sites, broken fragments, even. Every morning the two girls wandered forth, sometimes not coming home until late in the afternoon. Then Effie went back to her lodging, and spent the evening working at her verses; while Armorel practised her violin, or read and dreamed away the time opposite her companion, who sat for the most part in silence, gazing into the firelight, lying back in her easy-chair beside the fire.

These ramblings belong to another book-the Book of the Things Left Out. I could show you, dear reader, many curious and interesting places visited by these two pilgrims, but one must not in this place write these down, because Armorel's story is not Armorel's history. Let us always be careful to distinguish. Besides, the events which have to be related destroyed, as you will see, the calm and tranquillity necessary for the proper enjoyment of such ramblings. First, this discovery concerning the pictures. Who can visit old churches and museums with a mind full of wrath and bitterness? So wrathful was Armorel in considering the impudence of the fraud she had discovered: so bitter was she in considering the cowardice of her old hero: that she even failed to observe the unmistakable signs of trouble which at this time showed themselves in her friend's face. If not a beautiful face, it was expressive. When the projecting forehead showed a thick black line: when the deep-set eyes were ringed with dark circles: when the pale cheeks grew paler and more hollow: and when the girl, who was generally so bright and animated, became silent and distraite, something was wrong.

'What is it, Effie?' Armorel asked, waking up. 'I have asked you three questions, and have received no answer. And you are looking ill. Has anything gone wrong?'

'Oh!' cried Effie, 'it is horrid! You are in troubles of your own, and you want me to add to them by telling you about mine.'

'I am in trouble, dear. And it makes me selfish and blind. You know partly what it is about. It is about the Life that has gone wrong. I have found out why and how. But I can never tell you or anybody. Never mind. Tell me about yourself.'

'It is more about my brother than myself. You know that Archie has been writing a play?'

'Yes. You write verses which you have never shown me; and your brother writes plays. I shall see both some day, perhaps.'

'Whenever you like. But Archie has now finished his play.'

'Yes?'

'That means to him more than I can possibly tell you. He has been living for that play, and for nothing else. It has filled his brain day and night. Never was so much trouble given to a play before, I am sure. It is himself.'

'I understand.'

'Well-then-you will understand also what he feels when he has been told that his play is utterly worthless.'

'Who told him that?'

'A great authority-a writer of great reputation-the only living writer whom we have ever known.'

'Well-but-Effie, if a great authority says this, it is frightful.'

'It would be, but for one thing, which you shall hear afterwards. However, he did confess that some of the situations were fine. But the dialogue, he said, was unfitted for the stage, and no manager would so much as look at the play.'

'Poor Archie! What a dreadful blow! What does he say?'

'He is utterly cast down. He sits at home and broods. Sometimes he swears that he will tear up the thing and throw it into the fire; sometimes he recovers a little of his old confidence in it. He will not eat anything, and he does not sleep; and I can find nothing to say that will comfort him. If I knew anyone who would give him another opinion-the play cannot be so bad. Armorel, will you read the play?'

'But, my dear, I am no critic. What would be the good of my reading it?'

'I would rather have your criticism than'-she hesitated-'than anybody's. Because you can feel-and you have the artist's soul; and everybody has not--though he may paint such beautiful pictures,' she added rather obscurely.

'Well, I will read the play, or hear him read it, if you think it will do him any good, Effie. I will go with you at once.'

'Oh! will you, really? Archie will be shy at first. The last criticism caused him so much agony that he dreads another. But yours will be sympathetic, at least. You will understand what he meant, even if he has not succeeded-poor boy!-in putting on the stage what was in his heart. When he sees that you do feel for him, it will be different. Oh! Armorel!'-the tears rose to her eyes-'you cannot know what that play has been to both of us. We have talked over every situation: we have rehearsed all the dialogue. I know it by heart, I think. I could recite the whole of it, straight through. We have cried over it, and laughed over it. I have dressed dolls for all the parts, and one of us made them act while the other read the play. And, after all, to be told that it is worthless! Oh! It is a shame! It is a shame! And it isn't worthless. It is a great, a beautiful play. It is full of tenderness, and of strength as well.'

'Let us go at once, Effie.'

'What a good thing it was for me that the Head of the Reading Room sent me to you! I little thought I was going to make such a friend'-she took Armorel's hand-'We had no friends-yes, there was one, but he is no true friend. We have had no friends at all, and we thought to make our way without any.'

'You came to London to conquer the world-such a great giant of a world-you and your brother, Jack the Giant Killer.'

'Ah! But we had read, somewhere, that the world is a good-natured giant. He only asks to be amused. If you make him laugh or cry, and forget, somehow, his own troubles-the world is full of troubles-he will give in at once. Archie was going to make him laugh and cry; I was going to tickle him with pretty rhymes. But you may play for him, act for him, dance for him, paint for him, sing for him, make stories for him-anything that you will, and he will be subdued. That is what we read, and we kept on repeating this assurance to each other, but as yet we have not got very far. The great difficulty seems to make him look at you and listen to you.'

'My dear, you shall succeed.'

* * *

The young dramatist was sitting at his table, as melancholy as Keats might have been after the Quarterly Review's belabouring. He looked wretched: there was no pretence at anything else: it was unmitigated wretchedness. Despair sat upon his countenance, visible for all to see: his hair had not apparently been brushed, nor his collar changed, since the misery began: he seemed to have gone to bed in his clothes. Trouble does thus affect many men. It attacks even their cl

othes as well as their hair and their minds. The manuscript was lying on the table before him, but the pen was dry: he had no longer any heart to correct the worthless thing. It was the hour of his deepest dejection. The day before he had plucked up a little courage: perhaps the critic was wrong: to-day all was blackness.

'Here is Armorel, Archie!' cried Effie, with the assumption of cheerfulness.

'I have come to ask a favour,' said Armorel, taking the hand that was mechanically extended. 'I hear that your play is finished, and I am told that it is a beautiful play.'

'No-it isn't,' said the author.

'And that an unkind critic has said horrid and unkind things about it. And I want to read it, if I may. Oh! I am not a great critic, but, indeed, Archie, I have some feeling for Art and for things beautiful. May I read it?'

'The play is perfectly worthless,' he replied sternly, but with signs of softening. 'It is only waste of time to read it. Better throw it behind the fire!' He seized the manuscript as he spoke, but he did not throw it behind the fire.

'Is your critic a dramatist?'

'No. He has never written a play that I know of. But he is a great authority. Everybody would acknowledge that.'

'A critic who has never written a play may very easily make mistakes,' said Armorel. 'You have only to read the critiques of pictures in the papers written by men who cannot paint. They are full of mistakes.'

'This man would not make a mistake, would he, Effie?'

'Well, dear, I think he might, and besides, remember what he said at the conclusion.' Armorel sat down. 'Now,' she said, 'tell me first what the play is about, and then read it, or let Effie read it. I am sure she will read it a great deal better than you.'

He hesitated. He was ashamed to show his miserable work to a second critic. And yet he longed to have another opinion, because, when he came to think about it, he could not understand why the thing could be called worthless.

He yielded. He read, with faltering accents, the scenario which he had prepared with so much pride. Now it was like unrolling a canvas daubed for the scenery of Richardson's Show. He took no more pride in it.

'Oh!' cried Armorel, interrupting. 'This seems to me a very fine situation.'

'My critic said that some of the situations were fine.'

He went on to the end without further interruption.

'Now, Effie,' said Armorel, 'you will read it aloud while your brother plays it with his dolls. Then I am sure to catch the points.'

Archie sat up, and began to place his dolls while Effie read. He was so expert in manipulating his puppets that he made them actually represent the piece, changing the groups every moment, while Effie, dropping the manuscript, folded her arms and recited the play, watching Armorel's face.

This was quite another kind of critic. It was such a critic as the playwright loves when he sits in his box and watches the people in the house-a face which is easily moved to laughter or to tears, which catches the points and feels the story. There are thousands of such faces in every theatre every night. It is for them that the play is written, and not for the critic, who comes to show his superiority by picking out faults and watching for slips. For two hours, not pausing for the division of the acts, Effie went on, her soft voice rising and falling, the passion indicated but repressed; and Archie watched, and moved his groups, and the audience of one sat motionless but not unmoved.

'What?' she cried, springing to her feet and clasping her hands. It is easy for this fine gesture to become theatrical and unreal, but Armorel was never unreal. 'He dared to call this splendid play-this glorious play-oh, this beautiful, sweet, and noble play!'-here Archie's eyes began to fill, and his lips to quiver: he was but a young dramatist, and of praise he had as yet had none-'he dared to call this worthless?'

'He said it was utterly worthless,' said Effie.

'He said,' Archie added, 'that the language was wholly unfitted for the stage. And then-then-after he'd said that, he offered to give me fifty pounds for it.'

'Fifty pounds for a play quite worthless?'

'On the condition that he was to bring it out himself if he pleased, under his own name.'

'Oh! but this is monstrous! Can there be,' asked Armorel, thinking of the pictures, 'two such men in London?'

'If I would let him call it his own! He wants to take my play-mine-to do what he likes with it-to bring it out as if it was his own! Never! Never! I would rather starve first.'

'What did you tell him?'

'He said that he would wait for an answer. I have sent him none as yet.'

'When you do,' said Armorel, 'let there be no hesitation or possibility of mistaking. Oh! If I could tell you a thing that I know!'

'I will put it quite plainly. Effie, am I the same man? I feel transformed. What a difference it makes only to think that, perhaps, after all one is not such a dreadful failure!' In fact, he looked transformed. The trouble had gone out of him-out of his face-out of his hair-out of his clothes-out of his attitude. Armorel even fancied that his limp, day-before-yesterday's collar had become white and starched again. That may have been mere fancy, but joy certainly produces very strange effects.

'I would have sent an answer before,' he said, 'but it is so unlucky for Effie. This great man-this critic-is the only editor who would ever take her verses. And now, of course, he will be offended, and will never take any more.'

'He shall not have any more,' said Effie, with red cheeks.

'Oh! But that would be horribly mean. Well, Archie, I will begin by taking advice. I know a dramatic critic-his name is Stephenson. I will ask him what you should do next, and I will ask him about your verses, Effie, too-those verses which you are always going to show me.'

'I tell her,' said her brother, 'that she will easily find another editor. You would say so too, if you were to see her verses. I am always telling her she ought to show them to you.'

The poet blushed. 'Some day, perhaps, when I am very courageous.'

'No-to-day.' Archie opened a drawer and took out a manuscript book bound in limp brown leather. 'I will read you one,' he said.

'Of course, you will say kind things,' said the poet. 'But you cannot deceive me, Armorel. I shall tell by your eyes and by your face if you really like my rhymes.'

'Well, I will read one, and I will lend you the volume, and then you will see whether Effie hasn't got her gifts as well as anybody else.'

He turned over the pages, selected a poem, and read it. The lines showed, first of all, the command that comes of long and constant practice; and next, they were sweet, simple, and pure in tone.

'Strange!' said Armorel. 'I seem to have heard something like them before-a phrase, perhaps. Where did I read only the other day?... Never mind. But, Effie, this is not ordinary girl's verse.'

'Oh! you really like it?'

'Of course I like it. But it is so strange-I seemed to know the style. May I borrow the whole volume? I will be very careful with it. Thank you. I will carry it home with me. And now-I have thought of a plan. Listen, Archie. You know that many young dramatists bring out their pieces first at a matinée. Now, suppose that you read your piece, Archie, in my rooms in the evening. Should you like to do so?'

'I read badly,' he said. 'Could Effie read or recite it?'

'The very thing. Bring your dolls along and arrange your groups, while Effie recites. You will do that, Effie?'

'I will do anything that will help Archie.'

'Very well, then. We will get an evening fixed as soon as possible. I fear we shall have to wait a week at least. I will get my dramatic critic and a few more people, and we will have a private performance of our own. And then we shall defy this critic who said the piece was worthless-and then wanted to buy it and to bring it out as his own. I could not have believed,' she added, 'that there were two such impudent pretenders and liars to be found in the whole of London.'

'Two?' asked Ellie, changing colour. 'There can be only one.'

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