"I wondered whether you wouldn't read it to me,"
said Mrs. Alsager, as they lingered a little near the
fire before he took leave. She looked
down at the fire sideways, drawing her dress away from it and making her proposal
with a shy sincerity that added to her charm. Her charm was always great for
Allan Wayworth, and the whole air of her house, which
was simply a sort of distillation of herself, so
soothing, so beguiling that he always made several false starts before
departure. He had spent some such good
hours there, had forgotten, in her warm, golden drawing-room, so much of the
loneliness and so many of the worries of his life, that it had come to be the
immediate answer to his longings, the cure for his aches, the harbour of refuge from his storms. His tribulations were not unprecedented, and
some of his advantages, if of a usual kind, were marked in degree, inasmuch as
he was very clever for one so young, and very independent for one so poor. He was eight-and-twenty, but he had lived a
good deal and was full of ambitions and curiosities and disappointments. The opportunity to talk of some of these in
The year before, in a big newspapery house, he had found himself next her at dinner, and they had converted the intensely material hour into a feast of reason. There was no motive for her asking him to come to see her but that she liked him, which it was the more agreeable to him to perceive as he perceived at the same time that she was exquisite. She was enviably free to act upon her likings, and it made Wayworth feel less unsuccessful to infer that for the moment he happened to be one of them. He kept the revelation to himself, and indeed there was nothing to turn his head in the kindness of a kind woman. Mrs. Alsager occupied so completely the ground of possession that she would have been condemned to inaction had it not been for the principle of giving. Her husband, who was twenty years her senior, a massive personality in the City and a heavy one at home (wherever he stood, or even sat, he was monumental), owned half a big newspaper and the whole of a great many other things. He admired his wife, though she bore no children, and liked her to have other tastes than his, as that seemed to give a greater acreage to their life. His own appetites went so far he could scarcely see the boundary, and his theory was to trust her to push the limits of hers, so that between them the pair should astound by their consumption. His ideas were prodigiously vulgar, but some of them had the good fortune to be carried out by a person of perfect delicacy. Her delicacy made her play strange tricks with them, but he never found this out. She attenuated him without his knowing it, for what he mainly thought was that he had aggrandised HER. Without her he really would have been bigger still, and society, breathing more freely, was practically under an obligation to her which, to do it justice, it acknowledged by an attitude of mystified respect. She felt a tremulous need to throw her liberty and her leisure into the things of the soul--the most beautiful things she knew. She found them, when she gave time to seeking, in a hundred places, and particularly in a dim and sacred region--the region of active pity--over her entrance into which she dropped curtains so thick that it would have been an impertinence to lift them. But she cultivated other beneficent passions, and if she cherished the dream of something fine the moments at which it most seemed to her to come true were when she saw beauty plucked flower-like in the garden of art. She loved the perfect work--she had the artistic chord. This chord could vibrate only to the touch of another, so that appreciation, in her spirit, had the added intensity of regret. She could understand the joy of creation, and she thought it scarcely enough to be told that she herself created happiness. She would have liked, at any rate, to choose her way; but it was just here that her liberty failed her. She had not the voice--she had only the vision. The only envy she was capable of was directed to those who, as she said, could do something.
As everything in her, however, turned to gentleness, she was
admirably hospitable to such people as a class.
She believed Allan Wayworth could do
something, and she liked to hear him talk of the ways in which he meant to show
it. He talked of them almost to no one
else--she spoiled him for other listeners.
With her fair bloom and her quiet grace she was indeed an ideal public,
and if she had ever confided to him that she would have liked to scribble (she
had in fact not mentioned it to a creature), he would have been in a perfect
position for asking her why a woman whose face had so much expression should
not have felt that she achieved. How in
the world could she express better?
There was less than that in Shakespeare and Beethoven. She had never been more generous than when,
in compliance with her invitation, which I have recorded, he brought his play
to read to her. He had spoken of it to
her before, and one dark November afternoon, when her red fireside was more
than ever an escape from the place and the season, he had broken out as he came
in--"I've done it, I've done it!"
She made him tell her all about it--she took an interest really minute
and asked questions delightfully apt.
She had spoken from the first as if he were on the point of being acted,
making him jump, with her participation, all sorts of dreary intervals. She liked the theatre as she liked all the
arts of expression, and he had known her to go all the way to
Allan Wayworth had returned to
England, at two-and-twenty, after a miscellaneous continental education; his
father, the correspondent, for years, in several foreign countries
successively, of a conspicuous London journal, had died just after this,
leaving his mother and her two other children, portionless
girls, to subsist on a very small income in a very dull German town. The young man's beginnings in
For himself, he had never been so happy as since he had seen
his way, as he fondly believed, to some sort of mastery of the scenic idea,
which struck him as a very different matter now that he looked at it from
within. He had had his early days of
contempt for it, when it seemed to him a jewel, dim at the best, hidden in a
dunghill, a taper burning low in an air thick with vulgarity. It was hedged about with sordid approaches, it was not worth sacrifice and suffering. The man of letters, in dealing with it, would
have to put off all literature, which was like asking the bearer of a noble
name to forego his immemorial heritage.
Aspects change, however, with the point of view: Wayworth had waked
up one morning in a different bed altogether.
It is needless here to trace this accident to its source; it would have
been much more interesting to a spectator of the young man's life to follow
some of the consequences. He had been
made (as he felt) the subject of a special revelation, and he wore his hat like
a man in love. An angel had taken him by
the hand and guided him to the shabby door which opens,
it appeared, into an interior both splendid and austere. The scenic idea was magnificent when once you
had embraced it--the dramatic form had a purity which made some others look
ingloriously rough. It had the high
dignity of the exact sciences, it was mathematical and architectural. It was full of the refreshment of calculation
and construction, the incorruptibility of line and law. It was bare, but it was erect, it was poor,
but it was noble; it reminded him of some sovereign famed for justice who
should have lived in a palace despoiled.
There was a fearful amount of concession in it, but what you kept had a
rare intensity. You were perpetually
throwing over the cargo to save the ship, but what a motion you gave her when
you made her ride the waves--a motion as rhythmic as the dance of a
"And now--to get it done, to get it done!"
"Yes, indeed--to get it done!" Wayworth stared at the fire, slowly rolling up his type-copy. "But that's a totally different part of the business, and altogether secondary."
"But of course you want to be acted?"
"Of course I do--but it's a sudden descent. I want to intensely, but I'm sorry I want to."
"It's there indeed that the difficulties begin," said Mrs. Alsager, a little off her guard.
"How can you say that? It's there that they end!"
"Ah, wait to see where they end!"
"I mean they'll now be of a totally different order," Wayworth explained. "It seems to me there can be nothing in the world more difficult than to write a play that will stand an all-round test, and that in comparison with them the complications that spring up at this point are of an altogether smaller kind."
"Yes, they're not inspiring," said Mrs. Alsager; "they're discouraging, because they're vulgar. The other problem, the working out of the thing itself, is pure art."
"How well you understand everything!" The young man had got up, nervously, and was leaning against the chimney-piece with his back to the fire and his arms folded. The roll of his copy, in his fist, was squeezed into the hollow of one of them. He looked down at Mrs. Alsager, smiling gratefully, and she answered him with a smile from eyes still charmed and suffused. "Yes, the vulgarity will begin now," he presently added.
"You'll suffer dreadfully."
"I shall suffer in a good cause."
"Yes, giving THAT to the world! You must leave it with me, I must read it over and over," Mrs. Alsager pleaded, rising to come nearer and draw the copy, in its cover of greenish-grey paper, which had a generic identity now to him, out of his grasp. "Who in the world will do it?--who in the world CAN?" she went on, close to him, turning over the leaves. Before he could answer she had stopped at one of the pages; she turned the book round to him, pointing out a speech. "That's the most beautiful place--those lines are a perfection." He glanced at the spot she indicated, and she begged him to read them again--he had read them admirably before. He knew them by heart, and, closing the book while she held the other end of it, he murmured them over to her--they had indeed a cadence that pleased him--watching, with a facetious complacency which he hoped was pardonable, the applause in her face. "Ah, who can utter such lines as THAT?" Mrs. Alsager broke out; "whom can you find to do HER?"
"We'll find people to do them all!"
"But not people who are worthy."
"They'll be worthy enough if they're willing enough. I'll work with them--I'll grind it into them." He spoke as if he had produced twenty plays.
"Oh, it will be interesting!" she echoed.
"But I shall have to find my theatre first. I shall have to get a manager to believe in me."
"Yes--they're so stupid!"
"But fancy the patience I shall want, and how I shall
have to watch and wait," said Allan Wayworth. "Do you see me hawking it about
"Indeed I don't--it would be sickening."
"It's what I shall have to do. I shall be old before it's produced."
"I shall be old very soon if it isn't!" Mrs. Alsager cried. "I know one or two of them," she mused.
"Do you mean you would speak to them?"
"The thing is to get them to read it. I could do that."
"That's the utmost I ask. But it's even for that I shall have to wait."
She looked at him with kind sisterly eyes. "You sha'n't wait."
"Ah, you dear lady!" Wayworth murmured.
"That is YOU may, but _I_ won't! Will you leave me your copy?" she went on, turning the pages again.
"Certainly; I have another." Standing near him she read to herself a passage here and there; then, in her sweet voice, she read some of them out. "Oh, if YOU were only an actress!" the young man exclaimed.
"That's the last thing I am. There's no comedy in ME!"
She had never appeared to Wayworth so much his good genius. "Is there any tragedy?" he asked, with the levity of complete confidence.
She turned away from him, at this, with a strange and charming laugh and a "Perhaps that will be for you to determine!" But before he could disclaim such a responsibility she had faced him again and was talking about Nona Vincent as if she had been the most interesting of their friends and her situation at that moment an irresistible appeal to their sympathy. Nona Vincent was the heroine of the play, and Mrs. Alsager had taken a tremendous fancy to her. "I can't TELL you how I like that woman!" she exclaimed in a pensive rapture of credulity which could only be balm to the artistic spirit.
"I'm awfully glad she lives a bit. What I feel about her is that she's a good deal like YOU," Wayworth observed.
Mrs. Alsager stared an instant and turned faintly red. This was evidently a view that failed to strike her; she didn't, however, treat it as a joke. "I'm not impressed with the resemblance. I don't see myself doing what she does."
"It isn't so much what she DOES," the young man argued, drawing out his moustache.
"But what she does is the whole point. She simply tells her love--I should never do that."
"If you repudiate such a proceeding with such energy, why do you like her for it?"
"It isn't what I like her for."
"What else, then? That's intensely characteristic."
Mrs. Alsager reflected, looking down at the fire; she had the air of having half-a-dozen reasons to choose from. But the one she produced was unexpectedly simple; it might even have been prompted by despair at not finding others. "I like her because YOU made her!" she exclaimed with a laugh, moving again away from her companion.
Wayworth laughed still louder. "You made her a little yourself. I've thought of her as looking like you."
"She ought to look much better," said Mrs. Alsager. "No, certainly, I shouldn't do what SHE does."
"Not even in the same circumstances?"
"I should never find myself in such circumstances. They're exactly your play, and have nothing in common with such a life as mine. However," Mrs. Alsager went on, "her behaviour was natural for HER, and not only natural, but, it seems to me, thoroughly beautiful and noble. I can't sufficiently admire the talent and tact with which you make one accept it, and I tell you frankly that it's evident to me there must be a brilliant future before a young man who, at the start, has been capable of such a stroke as that. Thank heaven I can admire Nona Vincent as intensely as I feel that I don't resemble her!"
"Don't exaggerate that," said Allan Wayworth.
"Your dissimilarity. She has your face, your air, your voice, your motion; she has many elements of your being."
"Then she'll damn your play!" Mrs. Alsager replied. They joked a little over this, though it was not in the tone of pleasantry that Wayworth's hostess soon remarked: "You've got your remedy, however: have her done by the right woman."
"Oh, have her 'done'--have her 'done'!" the young man gently wailed.
"I see what you mean, my poor friend. What a pity, when it's such a magnificent part--such a chance for a clever serious girl! Nona Vincent is practically your play--it will be open to her to carry it far or to drop it at the first corner."
"It's a charming prospect," said Allan Wayworth, with sudden scepticism. They looked at each other with eyes that, for
a lurid moment, saw the worst of the worst; but before they parted they had
exchanged vows and confidences that were dedicated wholly to the ideal. It is not to be supposed, however, that the
knowledge that Mrs. Alsager would help him made Wayworth less eager to help himself. He did what he could
and felt that she, on her side, was doing no less; but at the end of a year he
was obliged to recognise that their united effort had
mainly produced the fine flower of discouragement. At the end of a year the lustre had, to his own eyes, quite faded from his
unappreciated masterpiece, and he found himself writing for a biographical
dictionary little lives of celebrities he had never heard of. To be printed, anywhere and anyhow, was a
form of glory for a man so unable to be acted, and to be paid, even at encyclopaedic rates, had the consequence of making one
resigned and verbose. He couldn't
smuggle style into a dictionary, but he could at least reflect that he had done
his best to learn from the drama that it is a gross impertinence almost
anywhere. He had knocked at the door of
every theatre in
Shortly before the time he had fixed for his return he
received from Mrs. Alsager a telegram consisting of
the words: "Loder
wishes see you--putting Nona instant rehearsal." He spent the few hours before his departure
in kissing his mother and sisters, who knew enough about Mrs. Alsager to judge it lucky this respectable married lady was
not there--a relief, however, accompanied with speculative glances at
He became conscious, the next day, that his danger would be other than this, and yet he couldn't have expressed to himself what it would be. Danger was there, doubtless--danger was everywhere, in the world of art, and still more in the world of commerce; but what he really seemed to catch, for the hour, was the beating of the wings of victory. Nothing could undermine that, since it was victory simply to be acted. It would be victory even to be acted badly; a reflection that didn't prevent him, however, from banishing, in his politic optimism, the word "bad" from his vocabulary. It had no application, in the compromise of practice; it didn't apply even to his play, which he was conscious he had already outlived and as to which he foresaw that, in the coming weeks, frequent alarm would alternate, in his spirit, with frequent esteem. When he went down to the dusky daylit theatre (it arched over him like the temple of fame) Mr. Loder, who was as charming as Mrs. Alsager had announced, struck him as the genius of hospitality. The manager began to explain why, for so long, he had given no sign; but that was the last thing that interested Wayworth now, and he could never remember afterwards what reasons Mr. Loder had enumerated. He liked, in the whole business of discussion and preparation, even the things he had thought he should probably dislike, and he revelled in those he had thought he should like. He watched Miss Violet Grey that evening with eyes that sought to penetrate her possibilities. She certainly had a few; they were qualities of voice and face, qualities perhaps even of intelligence; he sat there at any rate with a fostering, coaxing attention, repeating over to himself as convincingly as he could that she was not common--a circumstance all the more creditable as the part she was playing seemed to him desperately so. He perceived that this was why it pleased the audience; he divined that it was the part they enjoyed rather than the actress. He had a private panic, wondering how, if they liked THAT form, they could possibly like his. His form had now become quite an ultimate idea to him. By the time the evening was over some of Miss Violet Grey's features, several of the turns of her head, a certain vibration of her voice, had taken their place in the same category. She WAS interesting, she was distinguished; at any rate he had accepted her: it came to the same thing. But he left the theatre that night without speaking to her--moved (a little even to his own mystification) by an odd procrastinating impulse. On the morrow he was to read his three acts to the company, and then he should have a good deal to say; what he felt for the moment was a vague indisposition to commit himself. Moreover he found a slight confusion of annoyance in the fact that though he had been trying all the evening to look at Nona Vincent in Violet Grey's person, what subsisted in his vision was simply Violet Grey in Nona's. He didn't wish to see the actress so directly, or even so simply as that; and it had been very fatiguing, the effort to focus Nona both through the performer and through the "Legitimate." Before he went to bed that night he posted three words to Mrs. Alsager--"She's not a bit like it, but I dare say I can make her do."
He was pleased with the way the actress listened, the next day, at the reading; he was pleased indeed with many things, at the reading, and most of all with the reading itself. The whole affair loomed large to him and he magnified it and mapped it out. He enjoyed his occupation of the big, dim, hollow theatre, full of the echoes of "effect" and of a queer smell of gas and success--it all seemed such a passive canvas for his picture. For the first time in his life he was in command of resources; he was acquainted with the phrase, but had never thought he should know the feeling. He was surprised at what Loder appeared ready to do, though he reminded himself that he must never show it. He foresaw that there would be two distinct concomitants to the artistic effort of producing a play, one consisting of a great deal of anguish and the other of a great deal of amusement. He looked back upon the reading, afterwards, as the best hour in the business, because it was then that the piece had most struck him as represented. What came later was the doing of others; but this, with its imperfections and failures, was all his own. The drama lived, at any rate, for that hour, with an intensity that it was promptly to lose in the poverty and patchiness of rehearsal; he could see its life reflected, in a way that was sweet to him, in the stillness of the little semi-circle of attentive and inscrutable, of water-proofed and muddy-booted, actors. Miss Violet Grey was the auditor he had most to say to, and he tried on the spot, across the shabby stage, to let her have the soul of her part. Her attitude was graceful, but though she appeared to listen with all her faculties her face remained perfectly blank; a fact, however, not discouraging to Wayworth, who liked her better for not being premature. Her companions gave discernible signs of recognising the passages of comedy; yet Wayworth forgave her even then for being inexpressive. She evidently wished before everything else to be simply sure of what it was all about.
He was more surprised even than at the revelation of the scale on which Mr. Loder was ready to proceed by the discovery that some of the actors didn't like their parts, and his heart sank as he asked himself what he could possibly do with them if they were going to be so stupid. This was the first of his disappointments; somehow he had expected every individual to become instantly and gratefully conscious of a rare opportunity, and from the moment such a calculation failed he was at sea, or mindful at any rate that more disappointments would come. It was impossible to make out what the manager liked or disliked; no judgment, no comment escaped him; his acceptance of the play and his views about the way it should be mounted had apparently converted him into a veiled and shrouded figure. Wayworth was able to grasp the idea that they would all move now in a higher and sharper air than that of compliment and confidence. When he talked with Violet Grey after the reading he gathered that she was really rather crude: what better proof of it could there be than her failure to break out instantly with an expression of delight about her great chance? This reserve, however, had evidently nothing to do with high pretensions; she had no wish to make him feel that a person of her eminence was superior to easy raptures. He guessed, after a little, that she was puzzled and even somewhat frightened--to a certain extent she had not understood. Nothing could appeal to him more than the opportunity to clear up her difficulties, in the course of the examination of which he quickly discovered that, so far as she HAD understood, she had understood wrong. If she was crude it was only a reason the more for talking to her; he kept saying to her "Ask me--ask me: ask me everything you can think of."
She asked him, she was perpetually asking him, and at the first rehearsals, which were without form and void to a degree that made them strike him much more as the death of an experiment than as the dawn of a success, they threshed things out immensely in a corner of the stage, with the effect of his coming to feel that at any rate she was in earnest. He felt more and more that his heroine was the keystone of his arch, for which indeed the actress was very ready to take her. But when he reminded this young lady of the way the whole thing practically depended on her she was alarmed and even slightly scandalised: she spoke more than once as if that could scarcely be the right way to construct a play--make it stand or fall by one poor nervous girl. She was almost morbidly conscientious, and in theory he liked her for this, though he lost patience three or four times with the things she couldn't do and the things she could. At such times the tears came to her eyes; but they were produced by her own stupidity, she hastened to assure him, not by the way he spoke, which was awfully kind under the circumstances. Her sincerity made her beautiful, and he wished to heaven (and made a point of telling her so) that she could sprinkle a little of it over Nona. Once, however, she was so touched and troubled that the sight of it brought the tears for an instant to his own eyes; and it so happened that, turning at this moment, he found himself face to face with Mr. Loder. The manager stared, glanced at the actress, who turned in the other direction, and then smiling at Wayworth, exclaimed, with the humour of a man who heard the gallery laugh every night:
"I say--I say!"
"What's the matter?" Wayworth asked.
"I'm glad to see Miss Grey is taking such pains with you."
"Oh, yes--she'll turn me out!" said the young man, gaily. He was quite aware that it was apparent he was not superficial about Nona, and abundantly determined, into the bargain, that the rehearsal of the piece should not sacrifice a shade of thoroughness to any extrinsic consideration.
Mrs. Alsager, whom, late in the afternoon, he used often to go and ask for a cup of tea, thanking her in advance for the rest she gave him and telling her how he found that rehearsal (as THEY were doing it--it was a caution!) took it out of one--Mrs. Alsager, more and more his good genius and, as he repeatedly assured her, his ministering angel, confirmed him in this superior policy and urged him on to every form of artistic devotion. She had, naturally, never been more interested than now in his work; she wanted to hear everything about everything. She treated him as heroically fatigued, plied him with luxurious restoratives, made him stretch himself on cushions and rose-leaves. They gossipped more than ever, by her fire, about the artistic life; he confided to her, for instance, all his hopes and fears, all his experiments and anxieties, on the subject of the representative of Nona. She was immensely interested in this young lady and showed it by taking a box again and again (she had seen her half-a-dozen times already), to study her capacity through the veil of her present part. Like Allan Wayworth she found her encouraging only by fits, for she had fine flashes of badness. She was intelligent, but she cried aloud for training, and the training was so absent that the intelligence had only a fraction of its effect. She was like a knife without an edge--good steel that had never been sharpened; she hacked away at her hard dramatic loaf, she couldn't cut it smooth.
"Certainly my leading lady won't make Nona much like YOU!" Wayworth one day gloomily remarked to Mrs. Alsager. There were days when the prospect seemed to him awful.
"So much the better. There's no necessity for that."
"I wish you'd train her a little--you could so easily," the young man went on; in response to which Mrs. Alsager requested him not to make such cruel fun of her. But she was curious about the girl, wanted to hear of her character, her private situation, how she lived and where, seemed indeed desirous to befriend her. Wayworth might not have known much about the private situation of Miss Violet Grey, but, as it happened, he was able, by the time his play had been three weeks in rehearsal, to supply information on such points. She was a charming, exemplary person, educated, cultivated, with highly modern tastes, an excellent musician. She had lost her parents and was very much alone in the world, her only two relations being a sister, who was married to a civil servant (in a highly responsible post) in India, and a dear little old-fashioned aunt (really a great-aunt) with whom she lived at Notting Hill, who wrote children's books and who, it appeared, had once written a Christmas pantomime. It was quite an artistic home--not on the scale of Mrs. Alsager's (to compare the smallest things with the greatest!) but intensely refined and honourable. Wayworth went so far as to hint that it would be rather nice and human on Mrs. Alsager's part to go there--they would take it so kindly if she should call on them. She had acted so often on his hints that he had formed a pleasant habit of expecting it: it made him feel so wisely responsible about giving them. But this one appeared to fall to the ground, so that he let the subject drop. Mrs. Alsager, however, went yet once more to the "Legitimate," as he found by her saying to him abruptly, on the morrow: "Oh, she'll be very good--she'll be very good." When they said "she," in these days, they always meant Violet Grey, though they pretended, for the most part, that they meant Nona Vincent.
"Oh yes," Wayworth assented, "she wants so to!"
Mrs. Alsager was silent a moment; then she asked, a little inconsequently, as if she had come back from a reverie: "Does she want to VERY much?"
"Tremendously--and it appears she has been fascinated by the part from the first."
"Why then didn't she say so?"
"Oh, because she's so funny."
"She IS funny," said Mrs. Alsager, musingly; and presently she added: "She's in love with you."
Wayworth stared, blushed very red, then laughed out. "What is there funny in that?" he demanded; but before his interlocutress could satisfy him on this point he inquired, further, how she knew anything about it. After a little graceful evasion she explained that the night before, at the "Legitimate," Mrs. Beaumont, the wife of the actor-manager, had paid her a visit in her box; which had happened, in the course of their brief gossip, to lead to her remarking that she had never been "behind." Mrs. Beaumont offered on the spot to take her round, and the fancy had seized her to accept the invitation. She had been amused for the moment, and in this way it befell that her conductress, at her request, had introduced her to Miss Violet Grey, who was waiting in the wing for one of her scenes. Mrs. Beaumont had been called away for three minutes, and during this scrap of time, face to face with the actress, she had discovered the poor girl's secret. Wayworth qualified it as a senseless thing, but wished to know what had led to the discovery. She characterised this inquiry as superficial for a painter of the ways of women; and he doubtless didn't improve it by remarking profanely that a cat might look at a king and that such things were convenient to know. Even on this ground, however, he was threatened by Mrs. Alsager, who contended that it might not be a joking matter to the poor girl. To this Wayworth, who now professed to hate talking about the passions he might have inspired, could only reply that he meant it couldn't make a difference to Mrs. Alsager.
"How in the world do you know what makes a difference to ME?" this lady asked, with incongruous coldness, with a haughtiness indeed remarkable in so gentle a spirit.
He saw Violet Grey that night at the theatre, and it was she who spoke first of her having lately met a friend of his.
"She's in love with you," the actress said, after he had made a show of ignorance; "doesn't that tell you anything?"
He blushed redder still than Mrs. Alsager had made him blush, but replied, quickly enough and very adequately, that hundreds of women were naturally dying for him.
"Oh, I don't care, for you're not in love with HER!" the girl continued.
"Did she tell you that too?" Wayworth asked; but she had at that moment to go on.
Standing where he could see her he thought that on this occasion she threw into her scene, which was the best she had in the play, a brighter art than ever before, a talent that could play with its problem. She was perpetually doing things out of rehearsal (she did two or three to-night, in the other man's piece), that he as often wished to heaven Nona Vincent might have the benefit of. She appeared to be able to do them for every one but him--that is for every one but Nona. He was conscious, in these days, of an odd new feeling, which mixed (this was a part of its oddity) with a very natural and comparatively old one and which in its most definite form was a dull ache of regret that this young lady's unlucky star should have placed her on the stage. He wished in his worst uneasiness that, without going further, she would give it up; and yet it soothed that uneasiness to remind himself that he saw grounds to hope she would go far enough to make a marked success of Nona. There were strange and painful moments when, as the interpretress of Nona, he almost hated her; after which, however, he always assured himself that he exaggerated, inasmuch as what made this aversion seem great, when he was nervous, was simply its contrast with the growing sense that there WERE grounds--totally different--on which she pleased him. She pleased him as a charming creature--by her sincerities and her perversities, by the varieties and surprises of her character and by certain happy facts of her person. In private her eyes were sad to him and her voice was rare. He detested the idea that she should have a disappointment or an humiliation, and he wanted to rescue her altogether, to save and transplant her. One way to save her was to see to it, to the best of his ability, that the production of his play should be a triumph; and the other way--it was really too queer to express--was almost to wish that it shouldn't be. Then, for the future, there would be safety and peace, and not the peace of death--the peace of a different life. It is to be added that our young man clung to the former of these ways in proportion as the latter perversely tempted him. He was nervous at the best, increasingly and intolerably nervous; but the immediate remedy was to rehearse harder and harder, and above all to work it out with Violet Grey. Some of her comrades reproached him with working it out only with her, as if she were the whole affair; to which he replied that they could afford to be neglected, they were all so tremendously good. She was the only person concerned whom he didn't flatter.
The author and the actress stuck so to the business in hand that she had very little time to speak to him again of Mrs. Alsager, of whom indeed her imagination appeared adequately to have disposed. Wayworth once remarked to her that Nona Vincent was supposed to be a good deal like his charming friend; but she gave a blank "Supposed by whom?" in consequence of which he never returned to the subject. He confided his nervousness as freely as usual to Mrs. Alsager, who easily understood that he had a peculiar complication of anxieties. His suspense varied in degree from hour to hour, but any relief there might have been in this was made up for by its being of several different kinds. One afternoon, as the first performance drew near, Mrs. Alsager said to him, in giving him his cup of tea and on his having mentioned that he had not closed his eyes the night before:
"You must indeed be in a dreadful state. Anxiety for another is still worse than anxiety for one's self."
"For another?" Wayworth repeated, looking at her over the rim of his cup.
"My poor friend, you're nervous about Nona Vincent, but you're infinitely more nervous about Violet Grey."
"She IS Nona Vincent!"
"No, she isn't--not a bit!" said Mrs. Alsager, abruptly.
"Do you really think so?" Wayworth cried, spilling his tea in his alarm.
"What I think doesn't signify--I mean what I think about that. What I meant to say was that great as is your suspense about your play, your suspense about your actress is greater still."
"I can only repeat that my actress IS my play."
Mrs. Alsager looked thoughtfully into the teapot.
"Your actress is your--"
"My what?" the young man asked, with a little tremor in his voice, as his hostess paused.
"Your very dear friend. You're in love with her--at present." And with a sharp click Mrs. Alsager dropped the lid on the fragrant receptacle.
"Not yet--not yet!" laughed her visitor.
"You will be if she pulls you through."
"You declare that she WON'T pull me through."
Mrs. Alsager was silent a moment, after which she softly murmured: "I'll pray for her."
"You're the most generous of women!" Wayworth cried; then coloured as if the words had not been happy. They would have done indeed little honour to a man of tact.
The next morning he received five hurried lines from Mrs. Alsager. She had suddenly been called to Torquay, to see a relation who was seriously ill; she
should be detained there several days, but she had an earnest hope of being
able to return in time for his first night. In any event he had her
unrestricted good wishes. He missed her
extremely, for these last days were a great strain and there was little comfort
to be derived from Violet Grey. She was
even more nervous than himself, and so pale and
altered that he was afraid she would be too ill to act. It was settled between them that they made
each other worse and that he had now much better leave her alone. They had
pulled Nona so to pieces that nothing seemed left of her--she must at least
have time to grow together again. He
left Violet Grey alone, to the best of his ability, but she carried out
imperfectly her own side of the bargain.
She came to him with new questions--she waited for him with old doubts,
and half an hour before the last dress-rehearsal, on the eve of production, she
proposed to him a totally fresh rendering of his heroine. This incident gave him such a sense of
insecurity that he turned his back on her without a word, bolted out of the
theatre, dashed along the
The morrow, which was a Wednesday, was the dreadful day; the theatre had been closed on the Monday and the Tuesday. Every one, on the Wednesday, did his best to let every one else alone, and every one signally failed in the attempt. The day, till seven o'clock, was understood to be consecrated to rest, but every one except Violet Grey turned up at the theatre. Wayworth looked at Mr. Loder, and Mr. Loder looked in another direction, which was as near as they came to conversation. Wayworth was in a fidget, unable to eat or sleep or sit still, at times almost in terror. He kept quiet by keeping, as usual, in motion; he tried to walk away from his nervousness. He walked in the afternoon toward Notting Hill, but he succeeded in not breaking the vow he had taken not to meddle with his actress. She was like an acrobat poised on a slippery ball--if he should touch her she would topple over. He passed her door three times and he thought of her three hundred. This was the hour at which he most regretted that Mrs. Alsager had not come back--for he had called at her house only to learn that she was still at Torquay. This was probably queer, and it was probably queerer still that she hadn't written to him; but even of these things he wasn't sure, for in losing, as he had now completely lost, his judgment of his play, he seemed to himself to have lost his judgment of everything. When he went home, however, he found a telegram from the lady of Grosvenor Place--"Shall be able to come--reach town by seven." At half-past eight o'clock, through a little aperture in the curtain of the "Renaissance," he saw her in her box with a cluster of friends--completely beautiful and beneficent. The house was magnificent--too good for his play, he felt; too good for any play. Everything now seemed too good--the scenery, the furniture, the dresses, the very programmes. He seized upon the idea that this was probably what was the matter with the representative of Nona--she was only too good. He had completely arranged with this young lady the plan of their relations during the evening; and though they had altered everything else that they had arranged they had promised each other not to alter this. It was wonderful the number of things they had promised each other. He would start her, he would see her off--then he would quit the theatre and stay away till just before the end. She besought him to stay away--it would make her infinitely easier. He saw that she was exquisitely dressed--she had made one or two changes for the better since the night before, and that seemed something definite to turn over and over in his mind as he rumbled foggily home in the four-wheeler in which, a few steps from the stage-door, he had taken refuge as soon as he knew that the curtain was up. He lived a couple of miles off, and he had chosen a four-wheeler to drag out the time.
When he got home his fire was out, his room was cold, and he lay down on his sofa in his overcoat. He had sent his landlady to the dress-circle, on purpose; she would overflow with words and mistakes. The house seemed a black void, just as the streets had done--every one was, formidably, at his play. He was quieter at last than he had been for a fortnight, and he felt too weak even to wonder how the thing was going. He believed afterwards that he had slept an hour; but even if he had he felt it to be still too early to return to the theatre. He sat down by his lamp and tried to read--to read a little compendious life of a great English statesman, out of a "series." It struck him as brilliantly clever, and he asked himself whether that perhaps were not rather the sort of thing he ought to have taken up: not the statesmanship, but the art of brief biography. Suddenly he became aware that he must hurry if he was to reach the theatre at all--it was a quarter to eleven o'clock. He scrambled out and, this time, found a hansom--he had lately spent enough money in cabs to add to his hope that the profits of his new profession would be great. His anxiety, his suspense flamed up again, and as he rattled eastward--he went fast now--he was almost sick with alternations. As he passed into the theatre the first man--some underling--who met him, cried to him, breathlessly:
"You're wanted, sir--you're wanted!" He thought his tone very ominous--he devoured the man's eyes with his own, for a betrayal: did he mean that he was wanted for execution? Some one else pressed him, almost pushed him, forward; he was already on the stage. Then he became conscious of a sound more or less continuous, but seemingly faint and far, which he took at first for the voice of the actors heard through their canvas walls, the beautiful built-in room of the last act. But the actors were in the wing, they surrounded him; the
curtain was down and they were coming off from before it. They had been called, and HE was called--they all greeted him with "Go on--go on!" He was terrified--he couldn't go on--he didn't believe in the applause, which seemed to him only audible enough to sound half-hearted.
"Has it gone?--HAS it gone?" he gasped to the people round him; and he heard them say "Rather--rather!" perfunctorily, mendaciously too, as it struck him, and even with mocking laughter, the laughter of defeat and despair. Suddenly, though all this must have taken but a moment, Loder burst upon him from somewhere with a "For God's sake don't keep them, or they'll STOP!" "But I can't go on for THAT!" Wayworth cried, in anguish; the sound seemed to him already to have ceased. Loder had hold of him and was shoving him; he resisted and looked round frantically for Violet Grey, who perhaps would tell him the truth. There was by this time a crowd in the wing, all with strange grimacing painted faces, but Violet was not among them and her very absence frightened him. He uttered her name with an accent that he afterwards regretted--it gave them, as he thought, both away; and while Loder hustled him before the curtain he heard some one say "She took her call and disappeared." She had had a call, then--this was what was most present to the young man as he stood for an instant in the glare of the footlights, looking blindly at the great vaguely-peopled horseshoe and greeted with plaudits which now seemed to him at once louder than he deserved and feebler than he desired. They sank to rest quickly, but he felt it to be long before he could back away, before he could, in his turn, seize the manager by the arm and cry huskily--"Has it really gone--REALLY?"
Mr. Loder looked at him hard and replied after an instant: "The play's all right!"
Wayworth hung upon his lips. "Then what's all wrong?"
"We must do something to Miss Grey."
"What's the matter with her?"
"She isn't IN it!"
"Do you mean she has failed?"
"Yes, damn it--she has failed."
Wayworth stared. "Then how can the play be all right?"
"Oh, we'll save it--we'll save it."
"Where's Miss Grey--where IS she?" the young man asked.
Loder caught his arm as he was turning away again to look for his heroine. "Never mind her now--she knows it!"
Wayworth was approached at the
same moment by a gentleman he knew as one of Mrs. Alsager's
friends--he had perceived him in that lady's box. Mrs. Alsager was
waiting there for the successful author; she desired very earnestly that he
would come round and speak to her. Wayworth assured
himself first that Violet had left the theatre--one of the actresses could tell
him that she had seen her throw on a cloak, without changing her dress, and had
learnt afterwards that she had, the next moment, flung herself, after flinging
her aunt, into a cab. He had wished to
invite half a dozen persons, of whom Miss Grey and her elderly relative were
two, to come home to supper with him; but she had refused to make any
engagement beforehand (it would be so dreadful to have to keep it if she
shouldn't have made a hit), and this attitude had blighted the pleasant plan,
which fell to the ground. He had called
her morbid, but she was immovable. Mrs. Alsager's messenger let him know that he was expected to
"Certainly the performance would have seemed better if SHE had been better," Mrs. Alsager confessed.
"And the play would have seemed better if the performance had been better," Wayworth said, gloomily, from the corner of the brougham.
"She does what she can, and she has talent, and she looked lovely. But she doesn't SEE Nona Vincent. She doesn't see the type--she doesn't see the individual--she doesn't see the woman you meant. She's out of it--she gives you a different person."
"Oh, the woman I meant!" the young man exclaimed,
looking at the
"You see she WON'T pull me through."
"Forgive her--be kind to her!" Mrs. Alsager pleaded.
"I shall only thank her. The play may go to the dogs."
"If it does--if it does," Mrs. Alsager began, with her pure eyes on him.
"Well, what if it does?"
She couldn't tell him, for the rest of her guests came in together; she only had time to say: "It SHA'N'T go to the dogs!"
He came away before the others, restless with the desire to go to Notting Hill even that night, late as it was, haunted with the sense that Violet Grey had measured her fall. When he got into the street, however, he allowed second thoughts to counsel another course; the effect of knocking her up at two o'clock in the morning would hardly be to soothe her. He looked at six newspapers the next day and found in them never a good word for her. They were well enough about the piece, but they were unanimous as to the disappointment caused by the young actress whose former efforts had excited such hopes and on whom, on this occasion, such pressing responsibilities rested. They asked in chorus what was the matter with her, and they declared in chorus that the play, which was not without promise, was handicapped (they all used the same word) by the odd want of correspondence between the heroine and her interpreter. Wayworth drove early to Notting Hill, but he didn't take the newspapers with him; Violet Grey could be trusted to have sent out for them by the peep of dawn and to have fed her anguish full. She declined to see him--she only sent down word by her aunt that she was extremely unwell and should be unable to act that night unless she were suffered to spend the day unmolested and in bed. Wayworth sat for an hour with the old lady, who understood everything and to whom he could speak frankly. She gave him a touching picture of her niece's condition, which was all the more vivid for the simple words in which it was expressed: "She feels she isn't right, you know--she feels she isn't right!"
"Tell her it doesn't matter--it doesn't matter a straw!" said Wayworth.
"And she's so proud--you know how proud she is!" the old lady went on.
"Tell her I'm more than satisfied, that I accept her gratefully as she is."
"She says she injures your play, that she ruins it," said his interlocutress.
"She'll improve, immensely--she'll grow into the part," the young man continued.
"She'd improve if she knew how--but she says she doesn't. She has given all she has got, and she doesn't know what's wanted."
"What's wanted is simply that she should go straight on and trust me."
"How can she trust you when she feels she's losing you?"
"Losing me?" Wayworth cried.
"You'll never forgive her if your play is taken off!"
"It will run six months," said the author of the piece.
The old lady laid her hand on his arm. "What will you do for her if it does?"
He looked at Violet Grey's aunt a moment. "Do you say your niece is very proud?"
"Too proud for her dreadful profession."
"Then she wouldn't wish you to ask me that," Wayworth answered, getting up.
When he reached home he was very tired, and for a person to whom it was open to consider that he had scored a success he spent a remarkably dismal day. All his restlessness had gone, and fatigue and depression possessed him. He sank into his old chair by the fire and sat there for hours with his eyes closed. His landlady came in to bring his luncheon and mend the fire, but he feigned to be asleep, so as not to be spoken to. It is to be supposed that sleep at last overtook him, for about the hour that dusk began to gather he had an extraordinary impression, a visit that, it would seem, could have belonged to no waking consciousness. Nona Vincent, in face and form, the living heroine of his play, rose before him in his little silent room, sat down with him at his dingy fireside. She was not Violet Grey, she was not Mrs. Alsager, she was not any woman he had seen upon earth, nor was it any masquerade of friendship or of penitence. Yet she was more familiar to him than the women he had known best, and she was ineffably beautiful and consoling. She filled the poor room with her presence, the effect of which was as soothing as some odour of incense. She was as quiet as an affectionate sister, and there was no surprise in her being there. Nothing more real had ever befallen him, and nothing, somehow, more reassuring. He felt her hand rest upon his own, and all his senses seemed to open to her message. She struck him, in the strangest way, both as his creation and as his inspirer, and she gave him the happiest consciousness of success. If she was so charming, in the red firelight, in her vague, clear-coloured garments, it was because he had made her so, and yet if the weight seemed lifted from his spirit it was because she drew it away. When she bent her deep eyes upon him they seemed to speak of safety and freedom and to make a green garden of the future. From time to time she smiled and said: "I live--I live--I live." How long she stayed he couldn't have told, but when his landlady blundered in with the lamp Nona Vincent was no longer there. He rubbed his eyes, but no dream had ever been so intense; and as he slowly got out of his chair it was with a deep still joy--the joy of the artist--in the thought of how right he had been, how exactly like herself he had made her. She had come to show him that. At the end of five minutes, however, he felt sufficiently mystified to call his landlady back--he wanted to ask her a question. When the good woman reappeared the question hung fire an instant; then it shaped itself as the inquiry:
"Has any lady been here?"
"No, sir--no lady at all."
The woman seemed slightly scandalised. "Not Miss Vincent?"
"Miss Vincent, sir?"
"The young lady of my play, don't you know?"
"Oh, sir, you mean Miss Violet Grey!"
"No I don't, at all. I think I mean Mrs. Alsager."
"There has been no Mrs. Alsager, sir."
"Nor anybody at all like her?"
The woman looked at him as if she wondered what had suddenly taken him. Then she asked in an injured tone: "Why shouldn't I have told you if you'd 'ad callers, sir?"
"I thought you might have thought I was asleep."
"Indeed you were, sir, when I came in with the lamp--and well you'd earned it, Mr. Wayworth!"
The landlady came back an hour later to bring him a telegram; it was just as he had begun to dress to dine at his club and go down to the theatre.
"See me to-night in front, and don't come near me till it's over."
It was in these words that Violet communicated her wishes for the evening. He obeyed them to the letter; he watched her from the depths of a box. He was in no position to say how she might have struck him the night before, but what he saw during these charmed hours filled him with admiration and gratitude. She WAS in it, this time; she had pulled herself together, she had taken possession, she was felicitous at every turn. Fresh from his revelation of Nona he was in a position to judge, and as he judged he exulted. He was thrilled and carried away, and he was moreover intensely curious to know what had happened to her, by what unfathomable art she had managed in a few hours to effect such a change of base. It was as if SHE had had a revelation of Nona, so convincing a clearness had been breathed upon the picture. He kept himself quiet in the entr'actes--he would speak to her only at the end; but before the play was half over the manager burst into his box.
"It's prodigious, what she's up to!" cried Mr. Loder, almost more bewildered than gratified. "She has gone in for a new reading--a blessed somersault in the air!"
"Is it quite different?" Wayworth asked, sharing his mystification.
"Different? Hyperion to a satyr! It's devilish good, my boy!"
"It's devilish good," said Wayworth, "and it's in a different key altogether from the key of her rehearsal."
"I'll run you six months!" the manager declared; and he rushed round again to the actress, leaving Wayworth with a sense that she had already pulled him through. She had with the audience an immense personal success.
When he went behind, at the end, he had to wait for her; she only showed herself when she was ready to leave the theatre. Her aunt had been in her dressing-room with her, and the two ladies appeared together. The girl passed him quickly, motioning him to say nothing till they should have got out of the place. He saw that she was immensely excited, lifted altogether above her common artistic level. The old lady said to him: "You must come home to supper with us: it has been all arranged." They had a brougham, with a little third seat, and he got into it with them. It was a long time before the actress would speak. She leaned back in her corner, giving no sign but still heaving a little, like a subsiding sea, and with all her triumph in the eyes that shone through the darkness. The old lady was hushed to awe, or at least to discretion, and Wayworth was happy enough to wait. He had really to wait till they had alighted at Notting Hill, where the elder of his companions went to see that supper had been attended to.
"I was better--I was better," said Violet Grey, throwing off her cloak in the little drawing-room.
"You were perfection. You'll be like that every night, won't you?"
She smiled at him. "Every night? There can scarcely be a miracle every day."
"What do you mean by a miracle?"
"I've had a revelation."
Wayward stared. "At what hour?"
"The right hour--this afternoon. Just in time to save me--and to save YOU."
"At five o'clock? Do you mean you had a visit?"
"She came to me--she stayed two hours."
"Two hours? Nona Vincent?"
"Mrs. Alsager." Violet Grey smiled more deeply. "It's the same thing."
"And how did Mrs. Alsager save you?"
"By letting me look at her. By letting me hear her speak. By letting me know her."
"And what did she say to you?"
"Kind things--encouraging, intelligent things."
"Ah, the dear woman!" Wayworth cried.
"You ought to like her--she likes YOU. She was just what I wanted," the actress added.
"Do you mean she talked to you about Nona?"
"She said you thought she was like her. She IS--she's exquisite."
"She's exquisite," Wayworth repeated. "Do you mean she tried to coach you?"
"Oh, no--she only said she would be so glad if it would help me to see her. And I felt it did help me. I don't know what took place--she only sat there, and she held my hand and smiled at me, and she had tact and grace, and she had goodness and beauty, and she soothed my nerves and lighted up my imagination. Somehow she seemed to GIVE it all to me. I took it--I took it. I kept her before me, I drank her in. For the first time, in the whole study of the part, I had my model--I could make my copy. All my courage came back to me, and other things came that I hadn't felt before. She was different--she was delightful; as I've said, she was a revelation. She kissed me when she went away--and you may guess if I kissed HER. We were awfully affectionate, but it's YOU she likes!" said Violet Grey.
Wayworth had never been more interested in his life, and he had rarely been more mystified. "Did she wear vague, clear-coloured garments?" he asked, after a moment.
Violet Grey stared, laughed, then bade him go in to supper. "YOU know how she dresses!"
He was very well pleased at supper, but he was silent and a little solemn. He said he would go to see Mrs. Alsager the next day. He did so, but he was told at her door that she had returned to Torquay. She remained there all winter, all spring, and the next time he saw her his play had run two hundred nights and he had married Violet Grey. His plays sometimes succeed, but his wife is not in them now, nor in any others. At these representations Mrs. Alsager continues frequently to be present.