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The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8051

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Having duly "linoleumed them," or rather having very annoyingly quite failed to "linoleum them," Edward Henry continued his way up the right-hand gallery staircase, and reached the auditorium, where to his astonishment a good deal of electricity, at one penny three farthings a unit, was blazing. Every seat in the narrow and high-pitched gallery, where at the sides the knees of one spectator would be on a level with the picture-hat of the spectator in the row beneath, had a perfect and entire view of the proscenium opening. And Edward Henry now proved this unprecedented fact by climbing to the topmost corner seat and therefrom surveying the scene of which he was monarch. The boxes were swathed in their new white dust-sheets; and likewise the higgledy-piggledy stalls, not as yet screwed down to the floor, save three or four stalls in the middle of the front row, from which the sheet had been removed. On one of these seats, far off though it was, he could descry a paper bag-probably containing sandwiches-and on another a pair of gloves and a walking-stick. Several alert ladies with sketch-books walked uneasily about in the aisles. The orchestra was hidden in the well provided for it, and apparently murmuring in its sleep. The magnificent drop-curtain, designed by Saracen Givington, A.R.A., concealed the stage.

Suddenly Mr. Marrier and Carlo Trent appeared through the iron door that gave communication-to initiates-between the wings and the auditorium; they sat down in the stalls. And the curtain rose with a violent swish, and disclosed the first "set" of "The Orient Pearl."

[259] "What about that amber, Cosmo?" Mr. Marrier cried thickly, after a pause, his mouth occupied with sandwich.

"There you are!" came the reply.

"Right!" said Mr. Marrier. "Strike!"

"Don't strike!" contradicted Carlo Trent.

"Strike, I tell you! We must get on with the second act." The voices resounded queerly in the empty theatre.

The stage was invaded by scene-shifters before the curtain could descend again.

Edward Henry heard a tripping step behind him. It was the faithful typewriting girl.

"I say," he said. "Do you mind telling me what's going on here? It's true that in the rush of more important business I'd almost forgotten that a theatre is a place where they perform plays."

"It's the dress-rehearsal, Mr. Machin," said the woman, startled and apologetic.

"But the dress-rehearsal was fixed for three o'clock," said he. "It must have been finished three hours ago."

"I think they've only just done the first act," the woman breathed. "I know they didn't begin till seven. Oh! Mr. Machin, of course it's no affair of mine, but I've worked in a good many theatres, and I do think it's such a mistake to have the dress-rehearsal quite private. If you get a hundred or so people in the stalls then it's an audience, and there's much less delay and everything goes much better. But when it's private a dress-rehearsal is just like any other rehearsal."

"Only more so-perhaps," said Edward Henry, smiling.

He saw that he had made her happy; but he saw also that he had given her empire over him.

[260] "I've got your tea here," she said, rather like a hospital-nurse now. "Won't you drink it?"

"I'll drink it if it's not stewed," he muttered.

"Oh!" she protested, "of course it isn't! I poured it off the leaves into another teapot before I brought it up."

She went behind the barrier, and reappeared balancing a cup of tea with a slice of sultana cake edged on to the saucer. And as she handed it to him-the sustenance of rehearsals-she gazed at him and he could almost hear her eyes saying: "You poor thing!"

There was nothing that he hated so much as to be pitied.

"You go home!" he commanded.

"Oh, but-"

"You go home! See?" He paused, threatening. "If you don't clear out on the tick I'll chuck this cup and saucer down into the stalls."

Horrified, she vanished.

He sighed his relief.

After some time the leader of the orchestra climbed in

to his chair, and the orchestra began to play, and the curtain went up again, on the second act of the masterpiece in hexameters. The new scenery, which Edward Henry had with extraordinary courage insisted on Saracen Givington substituting for the original incomprehensibilities displayed at the Azure Society's performance, rather pleased him. Its colouring was agreeable, and it did resemble something definite. You could, though perhaps not easily, tell what it was meant to represent. The play proceeded, and the general effect was surprisingly pleasant to Edward Henry. And then Rose Euclid as Haidee came on for the great [261] scene of the act. From the distance of the gallery she looked quite passably youthful, and beyond question she had a dominating presence in her resplendent costume. She was incomparably and amazingly better than she had been at the few previous rehearsals which Edward Henry had been unfortunate enough to witness. She even reminded him of his earliest entrancing vision of her.

"Some people may like this!" he admitted, with a gleam of optimism. Hitherto, for weeks past, he had gone forward with his preparations in the most frigid and convinced pessimism. It seemed to him that he had become involved in a vast piece of machinery, and that nothing short of blowing the theatre up with dynamite would bring the cranks and pistons to a stop. And yet it seemed to him also that everything was unreal, that the contracts he signed were unreal, and the proofs he passed, and the posters he saw on the walls of London, and the advertisements in the newspapers. Only the cheques he drew had the air of being real. And now, in a magic flash, after a few moments gazing at the stage, he saw all differently. He scented triumph from afar off, as one sniffs the tang of the sea. On the morrow he had to meet Nellie at Euston, and he had shrunk from meeting her, with her terrible remorseless, provincial, untheatrical common sense; but now, in another magic flash, he envisaged the meeting with a cock-a-doodle-doo of hope. Strange! He admitted it was strange.

And then he failed to hear several words spoken by Rose Euclid. And then a few more. As the emotion of the scene grew, the proportion of her words audible in the gallery diminished. Until she became, for him, totally inarticulate, raving away there and struggling in a cocoon of hexameters.

[262] Despair seized him. His nervous system-every separate nerve of it-was on the rack once more.

He stood up in a sort of paroxysm, and called loudly across the vast intervening space:

"Speak more distinctly, please."

A fearful silence fell upon the whole theatre. The rehearsal stopped. The building itself seemed to be staggered. Somebody had actually demanded that words should be uttered articulately!

Mr. Marrier turned towards the intruder, as one determined to put an end to such singularities.

"Who's up theyah?"

"I am," said Edward Henry. "And I want it to be clearly understood in my theatre that the first thing an actor has to do is to make himself heard. I daresay I'm devilish odd, but that's how I look at it."

"Whom do you mean, Mr. Machin?" asked Marrier in a different tone.

"I mean Miss Euclid of course. Here I've spent heaven knows how much on the acoustics of this theatre, and I can't make out a word she says. I can hear all the others. And this is the dress-rehearsal!"

"You must remember you're in the gallery," said Mr. Marrier, firmly.

"And what if I am? I'm not giving gallery seats away to-morrow night. It's true I'm giving half the stalls away, but the gallery will be paid for."

Another silence.

Said Rose Euclid, sharply, and Edward Henry caught every word with the most perfect distinctness:

"I'm sick and tired of people saying they can't make out what I say! They actually write me letters about it! Why should people make out what I say?"

She quitted the stage.

[263] Another silence....

"Ring down the curtain," said Mr. Marrier in a thrilled voice.

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