The new burlesque was some travestie of a classical story; something which gave scope for plenty of pink silk and popular melody; an unsubstantial meringue of song and dance, a bonbon cracker pettilant with puns, a midsummer night’s dream of pretty faces and short petticoats.
Carry was delighted at her daring holiday. Thanks to Dacre’s skilful manipulation of box-keepers, they had reached the little doll’s house on the second tier, which had been for some two years back appropriated to the especial use of Mr. Rupert Dacre, and his especial friends, without observation. After the usual preliminary flutter, she composed her raiment, and looked about her.
The curtain had just risen upon the first piece, a comedietta, in which Miss Letty Lefanu (she afterwards married Lord Windermere, the defendant in the great lunacy case), played a brilliant belle Marquise, who marries a true-hearted spendthrift and becomes dévote.
Carry was not very much interested in the piece. The wit was a little too fine for her, and though she laughed when the other people laughed, she was not particularly amused, and longed for the burlesque to begin. Dacre was tired, too. He had seen the vamped-up French absurdity before, and he amused himself with leaning back behind the curtain of the box and watching Carry’s face.
She looked her best that night. She was, as Dacre had suggested, en grande toilette, and her large eyes were dilated with excitement. As she leant back, and chatted and laughed, Dacre felt proud of her presence. He was tolerably vain, and he hoped that some one of his friends would see him. That is, some one of his bachelor friends; for with the “seniors” Dacre passed for a model of morality. He was in excellent spirits this evening. He had won a victory. Three weeks back Carry would have refused point-blank to come with him alone to a theatre. His careful diplomacy, however, had been successful, and she regarded him as a friend. He had compromised her now at all events. The ice was broken. Moreover, reposing snugly in the pocket of his paletôt, was a letter from Saville Chatteris, which he had received that evening.
“She can’t resist such a proof as this,” said he; “but I will not use it until everything else fails.”
There was a hum and murmur in the house as the “act-drop” fell. The occupants of the stalls shifted their seats, in order to bring their lorgnettes to bear upon the boxes with greater ease. The scuffle of feet in the galleries sounded like the breaking of a sea upon shingle, and from the dense pit arose a ceaseless buzzing. Careful matrons produced bottles of refreshment; bald-headed papas wiped their foreheads with satisfactory grunts of relief; fast shop-boys went out to drink and smoke; flirtations were resumed with vigour, and the gilded youth of the boxes told each other as many lies as they could invent upon short notice, concerning the actresses in the forthcoming piece.
“And what do you think of Miss Lefanu?” asked Dacre.
“I like her very much,” says Carry.
“The stereotyped answer! Did you think she acted well?”
“Don’t be satirical, Mr. Dacre! I did like her, really. It must be very hard work for her.”
“Hard work! Not at all. It is only half-past nine, and she goes home for the evening. When I knew her first, she was a milliner’s apprentice at Weston-super-mare. She was harder worked then.”
“It must be a strange life?”
“Why strange? It is as much a trade as diplomacy—only it isn’t always so well paid. You have the same idea, I suppose that all people have who are ignorant of stage customs. You imagine that actors identify themselves with their parts, and that Ophelia is weeping in the green-room, because of Hamlet’s perfidy—that Lady Macbeth begins to be dangerous an hour before the curtain rises, and that Juliet is thinking of her Romeo. Not at all. Ophelia is probably mending her stockings, Lady Macbeth thinking of little Tommy at home, who has the measles, and Juliet, who is thirty-five and drinks, is wondering if she shall wear her old brocade dress in ‘Venice Preserved,’ to avoid the expense of a new one.”
“Oh! Mr. Dacre, you are in a bad humour this evening I think.”
“I speak facts.”
“Well, I don’t like my romance destroyed.”
“I won’t destroy it, then. The stage is everything that is delightful.”
“No, I don’t think that.”
“Come, Mrs. Chatteris, let me disabuse your mind of prejudices. There are but two general opinions about the stage. One held by the young man of the day, who takes his information out of third-rate novels, written by men who have never spoken to anything above the rank of a ballet girl. This class of man thinks that actresses must of necessity be the proprietors of broughams, poodle-dogs, villas, and millionaires in the city. This is wrong, The other class believes that the stage is all poetry and excitement; that actresses live on milk and honey, and are all exquisitely intellectual. This is equally wrong. The fact is that the stage is like the world it mimics—a mixture of good and evil, with the latter unhappily predominating. There is nothing poetical about it.”
“There is something fascinating to me in the word, ‘actress,’” said Carry.
Rupert laughed. “Romancing again! I have known a great many, and I have come to one conclusion regarding them.”
“What is that?”
“That they are very much like other women!”
“How provoking you are, sir!” but the curtain rose again upon an exquisite picture of one of the Grecian islands, and Carry’s attention was absorbed at once.
The modern passion for burlesque is significant. It is like the American greed for sweetmeats, indicative of unhealthy stomachs. The burlesque is the apotheosis of fooling. It was pleasant in the hands of Planché. Byron makes it wearisome. It appeals wholly to the senses, the intellect is left out of the question. But the people like it, and the people pay. There is the secret. The critics in the boxes condemn it as nonsense, but they come and see it; the people in the pit think it delightful, and they pay also. Maxwell Hurst was talking to Fleem (of the Spatterday Review) upon the subject.
“What abominable nonsense!” said he. “Hark at the stuff that girl is singing to that lovely little air!”
“The public don’t care about words,” said Fleem.
“The drama is going to the dogs, nowadays.”
“In old times the dramatists used to go there.”
“I cannot understand it. I looked in at the —— as I came up. ‘Othello’ was going on to empty boxes.”
“It is the fault of the actors, not the public,” said Fleem. “In these times nobody learns anything. We all live too fast. If the people go to see ‘Othello,’ they go to see one character, and, having seen it, they go away. You never see a play put properly on the stage. Nobody plays minor parts; they all want to be officers. Thirty years ago you had a play ‘cast;’ now it is run up by contract. People cannot be always seeing Mr. Brown as Hamlet, or Mr. Jones as Othello. They want to see a play, not a character.”
“You don’t call this a play?”
“Yes I do. All the actors are above the average, but they can play nothing else. That is what I complain of.”
“The thing is easy enough to understand. The public find Shakspeare badly done, and burlesque well done. They go and see burlesque. Actors find that they can make more money by singing doggrel at a concert hall than by learning their profession at a theatre, They go to the concert hall. The thing will right itself some day.”
“I hope it will,” said Hurst, as a shower of bouquets marked the appreciation of the boxes for a “breakdown.” “I shall go and smoke.”
Despite Mr. Hurst’s virtuous indignation, the audience were delighted. The young men in the stalls applauded furiously. Hetherington was in raptures.
“By Jove! how good! Bravo! I say, Chatteris, did you see that? Chatteris, I say!”
But Chatteris paid no attention. His friend turned to look at him. He was staring with all the power of his glasses into a little box on the second tier. “What is the matter, Cyril?”
He turned round, and Hetherington could see that his face was deathly pale.
“I don’t feel well,” he said. “Let me pass, will you? I shall go home.”
But the pair in Dacre’s box were so interested in the play that the confusion caused by his sudden exit was unnoticed by them.
Hetherington seemed a little alarmed at his friend’s violent disappearance, but composed himself again as the rustle of angry silk subsided. “Just like him,” was his muttered reflection. “Always cutting away mysteriously.”
Hetherington, like most of his class, detested anything approaching to a “scene,” and was somewhat sulky at the attention of the audience being drawn to his immediate neighbourhood. He soon composed himself, however, and when the curtain fell, walked calmly down to the “Rag,” dismissing all mental comment upon Cyril’s sudden illness with the first whiff of the “choice Trabuco,” which soothed his never very active brain.
Dacre took Mrs. Chatteris home to the Evangelical groves,—as in duty bound, and even accompanied her within doors.
“Well, and how did you enjoy yourself?” he asked, as Carry, flinging off her opera-cloak, sat down somewhat wearily by the fire.
“Very much,” said she, and her eyes glistened. “It was very kind of you to take me—very kind.”
Dacre—who had been revolving many things during the homeward drive—thought that the auspicious moment had arrived at last. He sat down in a chair by the side of the sofa, and leant across to her.
“It was not ‘kind’ at all,” he said. “It was selfishness made me take you.” Her cheeks flushed, and she played with the little screen that she held in her hands, nervously.
“What do you mean?”
He bent his head still lower, and tried to take her hand, but before he could touch it; the door opened, and raising her eyes, Carry saw her husband.