« AnteriorContinuar »
BORN TO SORROW.
ON THE BOARDS.
It is time that we turn to follow the fortunes of Nathalie Duprez, that strange woman, in whom so much of the hereafter of Grantley is to be wrapped up. My friends will remember that some chapters ago I described this woman deliberating as to what her future life was to be, in the midst of her misery, and how she came to the determination of entrusting her fortunes to that frail barque on the ocean of Life which has brought so many gallant souls to shipwreck—the stage : that life so unreal, so unlike the sober, staid reality of common-place existence; that debatable land, where many Bohemians and " dwellers on the threshold" of the polite world do congregate; a life in which there are very many kicks and very few halfpence—where success is wearily toiled for, and often comes too late: a life which is, nevertheless, far from a miserable one, for its votaries do very much as they like, and care not for the dictates of Mrs. Grundy.
The manager of the "Thespian" had written a short, curt letter to Nathalie, appointing a day for an interview with her, when he might be in a position to offer her an engagement, if she suited. Nothing much to cheer in this; and Nathalie, who knew as much of matter-offact business as a child is supposed to, felt her heart sink within her; but she had put her hand to the plough, and must not look back. Never was revenge bought yet but very dearly: trouble and toil would be doubly sweet to her if in their train came the accomplishment of vengeance.
Not very much calculated to cheer her was tbe aspect of the " City of Extremities," as the train moved up to the Paddington station. A cheerless, cold day had given place to an evening of determined rain, and a thick fog obscured everything, through which the station lamps gleamed red like fiery eyes. Alone in tbe world! Such was the conviction that forced itself, in all its- desolation, upon her as she stepped upon the platform, without a single kindly hand to guide her to a resting-place, unprotected, and at the mercy of the cruel world
of London! Ah, the bitter eense of loneliness that chills the mind when one sets foot for the first time in London streets, on a ch eerls rainy day! Very well when, as soon as the train stops, a cheery voice bids us welcome, and a friendly hand is stretched out to guide us to the home where rest and pleasant warmth may be found—a hand cunning to lead us through the intricate mazes of those miles of brick houses, and foot skilled to thread the labyrinth of tbe mighty station: but when one is unfriended, unguided, left to tbe mercy of those choice spirits, the London Arabs—who have no earthly pity for the unprotected and ignorant, and think them their legitimate prey; when one turns about bewildered amidst a sea of strange cold faces, how bitter the trial then! Nathalie, however, was not unused to travelling, and in the pursuit of her revenge cared not for the thorny and difficult path, did it but lead to the end at last where Nemesis lay crouching to destroy.
"My heart's sympathies go with the woman who labours for herself through all the difficulties, the prejudices, the disadvantages, of pushing her own course through life—who yet does this bravely and in sincerity—such a woman," says Mary Howitt, " is a heroine:"
And such a woman is my heroine! No interesting heroine of romance, with all the mystery of enchantment surrounding her, and making her fascinating to tbe reader, just as those veils which are called "falls" enhance the beauty of the face which they enshroud; unsurrounded by any of the dangers and delightful temptations which make Coraline, and Emeraude, and the others of the "indifferent honest" tribe remarkable; with no mysterious stranger of high degree to fall in love with her; not likely to prove heiress to a noble name and a gigantic fortune; not compelled to let herself down from a high window, or to escape over the leads, or to take deadly poison in order to free herself from the attentions of some wicked baron, like the interesting heroines of the penny prints: nothing of this to recommend her, but simply an injured woman, deserted by her friends, anil compelled to earn her own living in a world entirely new to her, where "men must work and women must weep." through all the blazing heat of the day, and, if haply they fall wearied to death by the roadside, must lie there forgotten and bruised, while their stronger brothers and sisters rush on in the headlong chase of El Dorado. And, supposing that everything went right, she would then enter a world in which everything was different from the ordinary work-a-day existence. She was to herd among people who were the Bohemians of society—at least of such society as is composed of the strictly moral and strictly conventional classes—" the Philistines," as a modern writer calls them. And she knew full well that two courses of life were open to her: of splendid shame—when she might be the queen of a shameful coterie, and ride to the Derby in a natty brougham, or the only woman in solitary state on a sporting drag, when she might lord it amongst her set in magnificent jewellery and gorgeous raiment, when she might have a villa in St. John's-wood, a horse to ride in the Row, and an income unlimited enough to allow of picnics to Richmond and pleasant little suppers; all this and much more, simply that a silly, fatuous young lordling, with more money than he could spend, might ape his fellow-men in sin: or she might, after much success, make a great name on the stage, and draw a salary large enough to supply her every want—and be fortunate enough, as many of her class have done, to persuade some stagestruck nobleman to marry her. Which she chose eventually we shall see anon; at present we must trace her adventures from the beginning.
The Thespian Theatre was one of those mighty undertakings constructed and maintained solely by the intrinsic energy of one man —the manager. He had taken it at a time when the theatrical season was becoming very slack, and when there was scarcely one actress on the Britisli stage who might be called a star, to such a mediocrity had the twin genii of Tragedy and Comedy fallen in England. By dint of unwearying energy, backed by large capital, he had succeeded in drawing together a galaxy of talent, most of it foreign, and at the time of our writing the career of the Thespian was in everyone's mouth, and coupled with it the name of Lawrence Hilton; and a decided success was prophesied, even by the most illboding. Nightly the house was crowded from pit to gallery, and the enterprising manager felt the ground growing firmer beneath his feet every moment, and spared neither money nor industry to please the public. Sprung himself from the lower order of people, he publicly acknowledged his aim was to please, not only the stalls and boxes, but the pit and gallery too; and this he managed by ever and anon, between the severer drama of Shakspeare and Dryden, introducing some sensation piece, startling enough to please the most fastidious lover of that kind of entertainment, and thus he actually contrived to delight the public. The stalls and boxes acknowledged that nothing could be finer than the way he put "Henry the Fourth" on the stage
complete to its most minute details, and from the opening scene in the Eastcheap Tavern to the closing Battle of Shrewsbury, where Grieve and Telbin had done their deftest in the scenery, and the field of battle was covered with the rival armies, dressed as correctly as if Lawrence Hilton had been army contractor to the monarch himself, when the setting sun gilded with its rays the gorgeous panoply of war and played upon the magnificent armour of the King and his staff of soldiers—nothing had ever been seen to compete with it; and when the drop fell on the first representation, the manager was called before the curtain, and bowed mutely to that most welcome music to managerial ears— the storm of applause that shook the mighty building. A better actor than his Falstaff had never flattered the wild Hal—a more graceful and more fascinating Lady Percy had never tamed the furious spirit of the warlike Hotspur. Even Shakspeare himself, so said the critics, would have found no fault with the acting and the scenery. Ere the applause had subsided, and people had well ceased talking of and admiring the "Henry the Fourth," came out that well-known sensation piece, "The Mystery of the Haunted Mill!" with entirely new scenery, and a ghost, which left nothing to be desired in the supernatural way; several murders, a suicide, a night attack of rioters, and prison scenes—where all the loathsome details of the system were brought out with such startling reality that the house shuddered—while the final triumphant success of the virtuous characters, and the utter abasement of the villains, made this play so attractive that it ran two hundred nights; and when the last representation took place, people were heard to lament who had seen it night after night.
Lawrence Hilton was, in himself, a plainspoken, unassuming man—a general favourite with the actors, from the first walking gentleman to the scene-shifters and banner-carriers. Rumour whispered that he had been a bannercarrier himself, and that he had skilfully carried the pennon of the wicked Baron, so as to keep the front always presented to the spectators; but Rumour is proverbially false, and in this instance "lied most consumedly." It was known but to few of his intimates that Hilton had keen one of the most daring speculators of the time, had attempted many things which had turned out gigantic failures, until in a lucky turn of the wheel of fortune, a large property came to him quite unexpectedly, and he engaged the Thespian Theatre. Whether he had come to London with that traditional halfcrown in his pocket, without which it seems impossible to amass a fortune—whether he was born to greatness, or acquired greatness, or had greatness thrust upon him, was dubious enough—but everyone in London knew that at present Lawrence Hilton was an example of a theatrical manager, with whom everything he attempted seemed to succeed (not always the case with those of his kind)—a man whose touch seemed, Midas-like, to turn everything to gold. And, besides, most people knew that in his beautiful little cottage at Bays-water the manager of the Thespian kept an old, infirm father and two sisters, who loved him beyond all earthly things. And knowing men would tell you that the reason why Lawrence Hilton did not marry, though many women of high position would have jumped at him, was, that he thought a wife might not have agreed with the household above-mentioned, and that he elected to remain single as long as they lived. This as it may be, but all the favoured people who were invited airjeed tba Hilton's dinners were perfect, and that tome of tbe best men in London were to he met tiere; and it was confidently asserted that tit Savelli. who would sing for no other nan under one hundred guineas per night, was ready to ling at Hilton's till she was hoarse, oatofpnre regard for the man. By the whole corps dramatique he was idolized: no taskmaster, never requiring impossibles, when people bad no straw he expected them not to *end in the tale of bricks; but when he was assured that they had the requisite materials ready to their hands, no Pharaoh was stricter in requiring exact performance of duty than he, and delinquent stage-carpenters trembled under his stern eye, and third-rate actors, who had not their " exits and their entrances" pat, had reason to tear their hair when he visited them. To the stars of his company he was never patronising, always urbane, and many were the cosy little dinners that the first ladies and gentlemen enjoyed at Bayswater, where they were always treated like ladies and like gentlemen. To the coryphtfes—that band of poor struggling girls, who exhibit themselves to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the public—he was almost fatherly in bis demeanour, and it fared hard with the roan who spake slanderously of these girls in his presence. His fine face would flush with indignation, and he would thunder out, in that clear decisive voice of his, "You must not be hard on my ballet-girls; you have no idea, sir, of the temptations to which these poor girls are exposed, and the terrible amount of hard work they have to go through to scrape together a few pence. I know for certain that a good many of these girls maintain poor families at Woe, and are as honest and pure as the day: ad I will never hear them slandered in my presence without defending them. I don't see why ballet-girls should not be as virtuous as our own daughters and sisters. It's the fashion, eir, if* the fashion, to call them all bad; there never was a more cruel falsehood." Will anybody join me, I wonder, in endorsing the good manager's opinion? I am afraid not, knowing to the full how prejudiced our strictly virtuous and proper people are in their estimate of these poor girls, putting them all down as bad together, whereas they never reflect on all tho misery and want those scanty and gauzy dresses cover—how deeply felt the want must be which impels them to this work—the horrible task of simulating that ghastly, unmeaning smile we
know Bo well—of plastering the poor worn cheeks with paint and rouge till, in the distance, they look like blooming beauties—of exposing themselves to the manifold dangers from gas, and falls, and sprained ankles, which render them unfit for their vocation. I am right glad to find that the public prints are taking up the cause of these poor girls: in good sooth, they need some defenders when so many revile.
Gently, Pegasus, we must pull up after this tirade, and go on smoothly again. When I have just described Lawrence Hilton's personal appearance—a short, wiry man, with a pleasant decided face, and that clean cut, small mouth, with closely-compressed lips, so characteristic of the man who will work his way despite opposition, with clear blue eyes, and curling auburn hair; he was what most women would have called a handsome man, with a rich musical voice, which stirred the heart like an organ— when I have thus photographed the manager of the Thespian, I will resume the thread of my narrative, for you must have been complaining already at "all this intolerable deal of sack to such little bread."
He was sitting in the office of the Thespian— a little den, covered and littered with play-bills, orders, manuscripts of translators of French plays, and baskets full to overflowing with rejected contributions, in the shape of tragedies, and comedies, and farces, from stage-struck authors. One of these he was busily engaged reading this morning, grumbling dolorously over the wretched contents, and bursting into a ringing laugh when anything particularly ludicrous struck his fancy, and marking deep red pencil lines against any passage which he thought might be welded into shape for the stage.
"The trouble these fellows cause me! They almost worry me to death with the shoals of letters they send in, entreating me, by all the gods, to give their effusions a trial. Come in."
It was a man of steady, quiet demeanour—the stage-manager, to inquire who was to replace Madame Vertot, she having refused to play any longer?
"Well, if she won't, of course there's no help for it; and lam not particularly sorry for it; she w&sn't half a bad actress, but then her temper, Bateman, her temper was that of the devil."
"Yes, sir; she had a battle royal with Mr. Thomson, the tragedy-man, and swore in French that she would kill him; but it is very annoying that she leaves in the height of the season, and when the piece was getting such a run."
"I daresay we can replace her. I have advertised, and got an answer; tha lady is coming this morning."
Bateman quitted the room silently and quietly as he had entered, and the manager turned to his work again.
Another tap; this time it was a servant, with a card—" Madame Brabazon."
"Show the lady up, please."
And in answer to tho summons entered Nathalie Duprez, who was desired by the manager to be seated, in the courtly way which was his when treating with a lady. She lifted the heavy veil which shrouded her face, and raised her eyes to meet the manager's inquiring glances—those wild, beseeching eyes, which told the story of her misery so eloquently in their dark, silent depths. And the practised eye of Hilton took in at a glance the details of the stranger's appearance, and muttered an approving " Umph!" as he surveyed her face.
"She will do," was his inward comment. "A face like that would make a hit on any stage."
"I understand that you wish to enter into an engagement as actress? I received your application. My name is Lawrence Hilton, and I am the manager of the Thespian."
"Such is my desire," said Nathalie, in a low, sweet voice.
"Hare you any references that you could oblige me with? Such things are generally necessary, to show that you have acted before; and as the part which you will have to take is an important one, I should like the references to be as good as possible."
Here was an unforeseen dilemma, and Nathalie felt her heart get cold within her as Bhe listened to the manager. In her utter ignorance of business matters, she had not entertained a thought of any question arising as to her having acted before. What was she to do? Should she tell this man, whom she felt she could trust, the whole story of her life? Something seemed to warn her against the folly of acquainting an utter stranger with the miserable details. With a great effort she mustered up enough resolution to reply.
"I—I really was not aware that such things were necessary. You may possibly be surprised when I tell you that I have never acted before. But before you refuse me, please hear me to the end."
A stare of utter amazement spread over the manager's features as he prepared to listen.
"Mr. Hilton, you have sisters, possibly daughters, of your own. Fancy their being turned out into the streets, to work or beg their daily bread! Fancy their being deserted by all their friends, by all their protectors, and exposed to the cold charity of the world—what would you do then? Such a case is mine, and Heaven knows that I am telling the truth. The history of my life I cannot tell you. All I can say is, that I am certain that with a little practice I would make a good actress. And if you would but take pity, and engage me, even in the lowest parts, I should thank you."
And all this time the beautiful eyes filled not with tears, but were fixed in earnest entreaty on the surprised manager, and her fine form quivered with agitation.
"Good actress, indeed," thought he; "only look as you do now, and the house will be crammed."
But the woman might be an adventuress: it plight, after all, be but some clever "plant."
Long experience had taught Lawrence Hilton to be cautious.
"It will be a risk, a very great risk, my dear Madame, and I must test your powers before I can give you even the least important character. The public are very exacting, and the slightest hitch often ruins the whole thing in our business. There is so much fear of your being nervous, and forgetting your pari, and breaking down, and a hundred other things, which would spoil the play. You will pardon my asking you, are your nerves tolerably good? Do you think you could stand the steady gaze of hundreds of eyes—that is, supposing you took an important character I"
"I have stood too many trials not to understand what you mean, Mr. Hilton; but I think that I can undertake the difficulty you mention."
"Well, well, we can make the trial, at all events. The fact is, my dear Madame, that the unexpected leaving of one of my best actresses has put me ahout sadiy, and if I cannot replace her at once the piece must be stopped, which will materially affect me, and injure my reputation with the public. The character is that of a woman who has been cruelly deserted by her husband, and passes through a variety of mishaps, till she comes to his door to die. She has to tax him with all his cruelty to her before his astonished wife, and then dies to slow music. Do you think you could manage this r See, here is the book; turn to page twentyfive, and read the words first. Imagine, if you can, that I am the husband, and that chair must do duty for the wife: the audience we will suppose, too."
An ill-concealed gleam of triumph lighted up Nathalie's face as she hurriedly scanned the lines: here was almost her own wretched lifestory—a short time ago she had played this same part in sad reality. She rose slowly, divested herself of bonnet and shawl, and unwound the massy coils of black hair till it covered her shoulders. She then began to read her part in her sweet, impassioned voice; and as the feigned story of her real agony fell on the manager's ear, he muttered,
"Her voice will do right enough, at any rate."
She finished the reading, and then stood waiting for his commands.
"Thanks, that will do nicely. And you think you comprehend your character? Now, then, for the acting; never mind the words exactly; put in anything of your own, if you like."
It required no assistance of his to pose her. With the natural grace peculiar to her, she sank at once into the most beautiful postures, and with flashing eyes, and heaving bosom, and hands wildly outstretched, commenced her speech. As she went on, the remembrance of the former scene came back so strongly to her mind, and she fancied herself once more with Grantley in that room, pleading and entreating. Ever and anon her voice rose with fierce denunciation, and the manager shrank awe-struck from that grand form and dilated eye. Then she sank again into agonised entreaty, and her frame collapsed into shuddering sobs. It was the reality of acting—if acting it really was—and Lawrence Hilton, as he looked on, grew ecstatic in his admiration; and as the scene reached its climax, when the dying wife gasps out the last words of love, he could contain himself no longer, but exclaimed,
"Admirable! admirable I Why, 'tis the most
perfect acting I have ever seen. Let the public
once see that, and I prophesy five hundred
nights, at the least, for 'The Wife's Trials.'
Vertot conld not come anywhere near this, and
she Tos \>y no means to be despised. To see
yon, I should never have guessed that you had
not icted before. The favourite of all the
theatres in Europe could have done it no better.
TnSing characters, indeed; you are fitted for
coining if not for the prima donna's part in
erery piece. But, pardon me, how very ill you
are looking! I hope there is nothing serious.
Allow me to offer yon a glass of sherry: the
excitement, perhaps, is too much for you; soon
get accustomed to it, though," said he kindly.
"Thanks; only a momentary weakness," said Nathalie, re-arranging her dishevelled hair, and sinking into her seat. "And so you think that I might do."
"Perfectly satisfied on that score, I assure you. Stay, there is one thing—can you sing? There is one simple ballad, 'The Weary Heart,' which you have to sing before a lot of rough labourers, if possible to earn a supper. If you can, it would be a pity to cut it out, as it is a great favourite with the public. I am sorry that there is nothing to accompany, but here is the little piece."
He handed her a piece of music; and with that voice, which bad rendered the moanings of Orpheus so well, she sang the ballad. A simple thing it certainly was, but one which lingered on the ears, and somehow brought the tear into the eye by its pathos—something very like one trembled in Lawrence Hilton's, as he listened to the plaintive song and the wailing tones of Nathalie's voice, and he said,
"Ah, that is enough to make you a favourite with the pit and gallery. There will be something like an encore when you sing it. I don't often speak out my mind so freely, but I must uy that in this instance I am perfectly content to engage you without reference of any kind. -tamt salary, and that sort of thing, we can »e£e another time."
Mood of incoherent expressions of gratitude trembled on Nathalie's lips, but Lawrence Hiiton evidently disliked a scene, and bad all a good man's unwillingness to be thanked.
"There, there; no thanks, my dear Madame; I daresay that in the end I shall be the roan benefitted, and have the most reason to offer you my thanks. It is, of course, no business of mine," he went on, delicately as possible, and with the tenderness of a woman in his tone, "but you will, perhaps, pardon me when 1 say that I am very much concerned for your lonely
and friendless condition in London. I know the feeling myself. I was once a poor, friendless man, without a soul to turn to for advice. What I was going to say is, that I and my sisters would be exceedingly glad to see you at Bayswater, where we live; and if we can do anything to alleviate your sorrow, will be only too happy to do it. You have the word of Lawrence Hilton that he will stand your friend, and no one ever trusted Lawrence Hilton yet, and found him unfaithful. There's my hand."
Nathalie seized the hand of her benefactor, and grasped it warmly: she had not found such kindness for some time.
"There will be a rehearsal of 'The Wife's Trials' on Thursday morning, when you can dress in character," said the manager. "In the meantime, please take the book, and learn up your part, and especially the exits and entrances, for they are most important. Good morning, my dear Madame."
He bowed Nathalie out, and returned to his office chair in a state of curious doubt. He had during his iife been thrown about amongst many strange people, but this strange woman, with her wild eyes and immense talent for acting, he could not make out at all.
"She seemed to play the thing as if it was her own life," he mused. "No fear of my missing Vertot at all, if she can only get over the stage nervousness. I shall get a bumper the very first night."
Again he busied himself over the manuscript, but in vain—he could not efface this wonderful creature's earnest face from his memory, so be gave up further work as a bad job, and at dinner that evening amused his home circle by detailing the day's adventure.
"Poor thing," said his sister Jane, a mildlooking, handsome woman, that night, as she poured out her dear brother's coffee; " I am sure we shall be only too glad to have her here as often as she likes to come. We may enliven her just a little."
Even in his dreams Hilton could not get rid of that beautiful face; and though he poohpoohed the idea scornfully, still he could not help acknowledging that she had made some sort of impression upon him. We shall see anon what that impression was.
HYMEN, 6 Hymen.sk!
"Hark to the wedding bells—the silver bells! What a world of happiness now their melody fore tells!"
Such is the text that the present chapter is to be preached upon; and that I may begin well, right devoutly do I invoke the aid of the sly little deity who presides over this ceremony— "Adsis o Hymeneee\" Come, Hymen of the silver bow and blazing torch, and wbisper truly