[Continued from the July Number.]
HOW IT WAS KEPT.
IT was late when Zelma Burleigh returned to the Grange. As she stole softly into the hall, she startled an Italian greyhound, which was lying asleep on a mat near the door. As he sprang up, the little silver bells on his collar tinkled out his master’s secret;—Sir Harry Willertou was still in the drawing-room with Bessie.
As Zelma passed up to her chamber, she said to herself bitterly,—“Thus openly and fearlessly can the rich and well-born woo and be wooed, while such as we must steal away to happiness as to crime, and plight our vows under the chill and shadow of night! ” But the next moment she felt that there was about her love a piquant sense of peril and lawlessness, a wild flavor infinitely more to her taste than would be any prudent, commendable affection grown in drawing-rooms, nourished by conventionalism, and propped by social fitness; and remembering the manly beauty and brilliant parts of her lover, she felt that she would not exchange him for the proudest noble of the realm.
After a time Bessie came stealing up from the drawing-room, and lay down by her cousin’s side, softly, for fear of waking her; and all night long Bessie’s secret curled about her smiling mouth, and quivered through the lids of her shut eyes, and overran her red lips in murmurs of happy dreams; but Zelma's secret burned like slow fire in her deepest heart. Bessie dreamed of merry games and quiet rambles and country fetes with the gay Sir Harry; but Zelma, when at last she slept, dreamed of wandering with her adventurous lover from province to province,—then of playing Juliet to his Romeo before a vast metropolitan audience.
Days went on, and Bessie’s pure, transparent nature, a lily-bud of sweetest womanhood, seemed unconsciously revealing itself, leaf by leaf, to all the world, and blooming out its beautiful innermost life; but Zelma’s secret still smouldered in her shut heart, never by any chance flaming up to her lips in words. Her mouth assumed a look of rigid resolution, almost of desperation; and her eyes shone with a hard, diamond-like brilliancy, fitful, but never soft or tearful. Her manner grew more and more moody and constrained, till even her matter-of-fact uncle and aunt, good easy souls, and her absorbed cousin, became curious and anxious. The little elfish black pony was in more frequent request than ever; for his mistress now went out at any hour that suited her whim, in any weather, chose the loneliest by-ways, and rode furiously. Often, at evening, she ascended a dark gorge of the western hills and plunged down on the other side, as though in hot pursuit, of the setting sun; and at length there came a report from the gossiping postmistress of a little village over there, that she came for letters, which she duly received, addressed in a dashing, manly hand. This story, coming to the ears of Roger Burleigh, quickened his dull suspicions that “ something was wrong with that poor girl"; and just as he was getting positive and peremptory, and Bessie perplexed and alarmed, Zehna disappeared !
For several days there were anxious inquiries and vain searches in every direction,—storming, weeping, and sleeplessness in the Squire's usually happy household; and then came a letter, whose Scottish post-mark revealed much of the mystery. It was from Zelma, telling that she had left the Grange forever, and become the wife of “Mr. Bury, the strolling player”; and saying that she had taken this step of her own free will, knowing it to be a fatal, unpardonable sin against caste, and that it would set a great gulf between her and her respectable relatives. Yet, she asked, had not a gulf of feeling, as deep and wide, ever separated their hearts from the gypsy’s daughter? and was it not better and more honest to break the weak social ties of protection and dependence which had stretched like wild vines across the chasm to hide it from the world ? She then bade them all an abrupt and final farewell. Tt was a letter brief, cold, and curt, almost to insolence ; but beneath her new name, which was dashed off with somewhat of a dramatic flourish, there appeared hurriedly scrawled in pencil a woman’s postscript, containing the real soul of the letter, a passionate burst of feeling, a bitter cry of long-repressed, sorrowful tenderness. It implored forgiveness for any pain she might ever have given them, for any disgrace she might ever bring upon them,—it thanked and blessed them for past kindness, and humbly prayed for them the choicest gifts and the most loving protection of Heaven. This postscript was signed “Zelle,”—the orphan's childish and pet name at the Grange, which she now put off’ with the peace and purity of maidenhood and domestic life.
When it was known how Zelma Burleigh had fled, and with whom, the neigh-boring gentry were duly shocked and scandalized. 1 he village gossips declared that they had always foreseen some such fate for “ that strange girl,” and sagely prophesied that the master of Willerton Hall would abandon all thought of an alliance with a family whose escutcheon had suffered so severely. But they counted on the baronet, not on the man,—and so, for once, were mistaken.
As for honest Roger Burleigh, he was beside himself with amazement and indignation at the folly and ingratitude of his niece and the measureless presumption of “ that infernal puppy of a play-actor,” as he denominated Zelma’s clever husband.
As he was one day talking over the sad affair with his friend Sir Harry, who best succeeded in soothing him down, he inveighed against all actors and actresses in the strongest terms of aversion and contempt, giving free expression to the violent provincial prejudice of his time against players of all degrees.
“ But, my dear Sir,” interrupted the young Baronet, “ your niece has not become an actress,—only the wife of a promising actor.”
“ No,—but she will be one yet. She’s stage-struck now, more than anything else; and mark my words,—that villain will have her on the boards before the year’s end, and live by her ranting. Why, you see, Sir Harry, strolling is in the blood, and must out, I suppose. The girl, as you may have heard, is half gypsy. My brother, Captain Burleigh, was a sad scamp, and actually married a Spanish Zincala ! He was drunk at the time, we have the consolation to believe, or he could never have so far belied his good old English blood, dissipated dog as he was. To be sure, she saved his life once, and really was a beautiful, devoted creature, by all accounts; and if Zelma had done no worse than she,— run away with any poor devil, provided only he were a gentleman,—or if she had gone off vagabondizing with one of her mother’s people, it would not have been so infamous an affair as it is; she might still have been accounted an honest woman;—but, my God, Sir Harry, a strolling player! ”
Mrs. Burleigh was but a dutiful echo of her husband’s prejudices, and gave up her hapless niece as lost beyond redemption ; but Bessie, though she grieved more than either, suffered from no sense of humiliation, and allowed no virtuous anger, no injurious doubts, to enter her blessed little heart. Yet she missed her lost companion, her strong friend, and, still vine-like in her instincts, turned wholly to the new support,—to one who submitted himself gladly to the sweet inthralment, and felt all the grander for the luscious weight and tendril-like clasp. And so Love came to pretty Bessie’s heart “ with healing in his wings.”
Unspeakable was the dismay of Mr. Bury at finding that a very modest amount of personal property was all that his runaway wife could hope to receive from her relatives,—that she was utterly portionless, her father having more than exhausted the patrimony of a younger son. He had supposed, from Zelma’s apparently honorable position in the household of her uncle, that she was, if not an heiress, at least respectably dowered. Had he been better informed, it is doubtful whether, improvident and enamored as he was, he would have ruralized and practicalized Romeo in the lane of Burleigh Grange. Zelma herself, too unworldly to suspect that self-interest had anything to do with her conquest, never alluded to her lack of dowry till it was too late. Then both manly shame and manly passion (for the actor loved her in his way, which was by no means her way, or the way of any large, loyal nature) restrained all unbecoming expression of chagrin and disappointment,— which yet sunk into his heart, and prepared the not uncongenial soil for a goodly crop of suspicion, jealousy, alienation, aversion, and all manner of domestic infelicities.
We cannot follow Zelma step by step, in her precarious and wandering life, for the six months succeeding her marriage. It was a life not altogether distasteful to her. She was not enough of a fine lady to be dismayed or humiliated by its straits and shifts of’poverty, by its isolation and ostracism; while there was something in its alternations of want and profusion, in its piquant contrasts of real and mimic life, in its excitement, action, and change, which had a peculiar charm for her wild and restless spirit. But from many of the associations of the stage, from nearly all actors and actresses, and from all green-room loungers, she instinctively recoiled, and held herself haughtily aloof from the motley little world behind the scenes,—apparently by no effort, but as sphered apart by the atmosphere of refinement, and superiority which enveloped her. Yet she almost constantly accompanied her husband to rehearsal and play, where, for a time, her presence was grateful both to the pride and a more amiable passion of her mercurial lord. But the sight of that shy, shadowy figure haunting the wings, of those keen, critical eyes ever following the business of the stage, at last grew irksome to him, and he would fain have persuaded her to remain quietly at their lodgings, whilst he was attending to his professional duties. But no, she would go with him,— not for pleasure, or even affection, but, as she always avowed, for artistic purposes. That she had cherished, ever since her marriage, the plan of adopting her husband’s profession, she had never concealed from him. He usually laughed, in his gay, supercilious way, when she spoke of this purpose, or lightly patted her grand head and declared her to be a wilful, unpractical enthusiast,—too much a child of Nature to attempt an art of any kind,— born to live and be poetry, not to declaim it,—to inspire genius, not to embody it, —a Muse, not a Sibyl.
Once, when she was more than usually earnest in pleading for her plan,—not merely on the strength of her own deep, prophetic conviction of her fitness for a dramatic career, but on the ground of an urgent and bitter necessity for exertion on her part, to ward off actual destitution and suffering,—be exclaimed, somewhat impatiently,—“Why, Zelma, it is an impossibility, almost an absurdity, you urge! You could never make an actress. You are too hopelessly natural, erratic, and impulsive. You would follow no teaching implicitly, but, when you saw fit, would trample on conventionalities and venerable stage-traditions. You would set up the standard of revolt against the ancient canons of Art, and flout it in the faces of the critics, and—Jail,—ay, fail, in spite of your great, staring eyes, the tragic weight of your brows, and the fiery swell of your nostril.”
“ I should certainly tread my own ways on the boards, as elsewhere,” replied Zelma, quietly,—“move and act from the central force, the instinct and inspiration of Nature,—letting the passion of my part work itself out in its own gestures, postures, looks, and tones,—falling short of, or going beyond, mere stage-traditions. With all due deference for authorities, this would bo my art, as it has been the art of all truly great actors. I shall certainly not adopt my husband’s profession without his consent,—but I shall never cease importuning him for that consent.”
Lawrence “ laughed a laugh of merry scorn,” and left her to her solitary studies and the patient nursing of her purpose.
It was finally, for Zelma’s sake, through the unsolicited influence of Sir Harry Willerton, that “Mr. Lawrence Bury, Tragedian,” attained to a high point in a provincial actor’s ambition,—a London engagement.
After a disheartening period of waiting and idleness, during which he and his wife made actual face-to-face acquaintance with want, and both came near playing their parts in the high-tragedy of starvation in a garret, he made his first appearance before the audience of Covent Garden, in the part of Mercutio. He was young, shapely, handsome, and clever,—full of flash and dash, and, above all, new. He had chosen well his part,— Mercutio,— that graceful frolic of fancy, which less requires sustained intellectual power than the exaltation of animal spirits,—that brief sunburst of life, that brilliant bubble of character, which reflects, for a moment, a world of beauty and sparkle, and dies in a flask of wit, yet leaves on the mind a want, a tender regret, which follow one through all the storm and woe of the tragedy.
So it was little wonder, perhaps, that he achieved a decided success, though incomparably greater artists had failed where he triumphed, and that, in spite of the doubtful looks and faint praise of the critics, he became at once a public favorite,—the fashion, the rage. Ladies of the highest ton condescended to admire and applaud, and hailed as a benefactor the creator of a new sensation.
Very soon the young actor’s aspiring soul rose above all secondary parts, dropped Mereutio and Horatio for Romeo and Hamlet, and had not the sense to see that he was getting utterly out of his element, dashing with silken sails into the tempest of tragedy, soaring on Icarian wings over its profoundest deeps and into the height and heat of its intensest passion.
Yet with the young, the unthinking, the eager, the curious, it was then as it is now and ever shall be,—confidence easily passed for genius, and presumption for power. Tributes of admiration and envy poured in upon him,—anonymous missives, tender and daring, odorous with the atmosphere of luxurious boudoirs, and coarse scrawls, scented with orange-peel and lamp-smoke, and seeming to hiss with the sibilant whisper of green-room spite ; and the young actor, valuing alike the sentiments, kindly or malign, which ministered to his egoism, intoxicated with the first foamy draught of fame, grew careless, freakish, and arrogant, as all suddenly adopted pets of the public are likely to do.
At length Mr. Bury played before Royalty, and Royalty was heard to say to Nobility in attendance,—“What!— Who is he? Where did he come from ? How old is he? Not quite equal to Garrick yet, but clever,— eh, my Lord?”
This gracious royal criticism, being duly reported and printed, removed the last let to aristocratic favor; fast young bloods of the highest nobility did not scorn to shake off their perfumes and air their profane vocabulary in the green-room, offering snuff and the incense of flattery together to the Tamerlane, the Romeo, or the Lord Hamlet of the night.
Happily, with the actor’s fame rose his salary; and as both rose, the actor and his wife descended from their lofty atticroom—into whose one window the stars looked with, it seemed to Zelma, a startling nearness—to respectable lodgings on the second floor.
It was during this first London season that the manager of Covent Garden, himself an actor, remarked the rare capabilities of Zelma’s face, voice, and figure for the stage, and in a matter-of-fact business way spoke of them to her husband. The leading actor looked annoyed, and sought to change the subject of conversation ; but as the wife’s dreamy eyes flashed with sudden splendor, revealing the true dramatic fire, the manager returned upon him with his artistic convictions and practical arguments, and at length wrung from him most reluctant consent that Zelma, after the necessary study, should make a trial of her powers.
Though well over the first summerwarmth of his romantic passion, Lawrence Bury had not yet grown so utterly cold toward his beautiful wife that he could see that trial approach without some slight sympathetic dread; but his miserable egoism forbade him to wish her success; in his secret heart he even hoped that an utter, irretrievable failure would wither at once and forever her pretty artistic aspirations.
Zelma chose for her debut the part of Zara in “The Mourning Bride,”—not out of any love for the character, which was too stormy, vicious, and revengeful to engage her sympathies,—but because it was rapid, vehement, sharply defined, and, if realized at all, she said, would put her, by its very fierceness and wickedness, too far out of herself for failure,—sweep her through the play like a whirlwind, and give her no time to droop. It had for her heart, moreover, a peculiar charm of association, as her first play,—as that in which she had first beheld the hero of her dreams, “ the god of her idolatry,” before whom she, yet bowed, but as with eyes cast down or veiled, not in reverence, but front a chill, unavowed fear of beholding the very common clay of which he was fashioned.
The awful night of the debut arrived, as doomsday will come at last; and after having been elaborately arrayed for her part by a gossiping tire-woman, who would chatter incessantly, relating, for the encouragement of the debutante, tale after tale of stage-fright, swoons, and failure,—after having been plumed, powdered, and most reluctantly rouged, the rose of nineteen summers having suddenly paled on her cheek, Zelma was silently conducted from her dressing-room by her husband, who, as Osmyn, took his stand with her, the guards, and attendants at the left wing, awaiting the summons to the presence of King Manuel. As they were listening to the last tender bleating of Almeria, the same pretty actress whom Zelma had seen as Zara at Arden, and the gruff responses of her sire, an eager whisper ran through the group;—the King and Queen had entered the royal box ! This was quite unexpected, and Zelma was aghast. Involuntarily. she stretched out her hand and grasped that of her husband;—as she did so, the rattle of the chains on her wrist betrayed her. The attendants looked round and smiled;—Lawrence frowned and turned away, with a boy’s pettishncss. He had been more than usually moody that day; but Zelma had believed him troubled for her sake, and even now interpreted bis unkindness as nervous anxiety.
The next moment, everything, even he, was forgotten ; for she stood, she hardly knew how, upon the stage, receiving and mechanically acknowledging a great burst of generous British applause.
It was a greeting less complaisant and patronizing than is usually given to debutantes. Zelma's youthful charms, heightened by her sumptuous dress, look Iter audience by surprise, and, while voice and action delayed, made for her friends and favor, and bribed judgment with beauty.
King Manuel receives his captives with a courteous speech,—only a few lines; but, during their reading, through what a lifetime of fear, of pain, of unimaginable horrors passed Zelma! Stagefright, that waking nightmare of debutantes, clutched her at once, petrifying, while it tortured her. The house seemed to surge around her, the stage 1o rock under her feet. She fancied she heard low, elfish laughter behind the scenes, and already the hiss of the critics seamed to sing in her reeling brain. A thousand eyes pierced her through and through,— seemed to see how the frightened blood had shrunk away from its mask of rouge and hidden in her heart,—how that poor childish heart fluttered and palpitated,— how near the hot tears were to the glazed eyeballs,—how fast the black, obliterating shadows were creeping over the records of memory,—how the first instinct of fear, a blind impulse to flight, was maddening Iier.
She raised her eyes to the royal box, where sat a stout, middle-aged man, with a dull, good-humored face, a star and ribbon on his breast, and by his side a woman, ample and motherly, with an ugly tuft of feathers on her head, and a diamond tiara, which lit up her heavy Dutch features like a torch. The King, the Queen!
Just at this moment, his Majesty was in gracious converse with a lady on his right, a foreign princess, of an ancient, unpronounceable title,—a thin, colorless head and form, overloaded with immemorial family-jewels,—a mere frame of a woman, to hang brilliants upon. She was one shine and shiver of diamonds, from head to foot;—she palpitated light, like a glow-worm. Her Majesty, meanwhile, was regaling herself from a jewelled snuff-box. and talking affably over her shoulder to her favorite mistress of the robes, the fearful Schwellenberg.
But Zelma, looking through the transfiguring atmosphere of loyalty, beheld the royal group encompassed by all the ideal splendor and sacredness of majesty;— over their very commonplace heads towered the airy crowns of a hundred regal ancestors, piled round on round, and glimmering away into the clouds.
Ere she turned her fascinated eyes away from the august sight, her cue was given. She started, and struggled to speak, but her lips clung together. There was a dull roar and whirl in her brain, as of a vortex of waters. In piteous appealing she looked into the face of her husband, and caught on his lips a strange, faint smile of mingled pity and exultation. It stung her like a lash ! Instantly she was herself, or rather Zara, a captive, but every inch a queen, and delivered herself calmly and proudly, though with a little tremble of her past agitation in her voice,—a thrill of womanly feeling, which felt its way at once to the hearts of her audience.
The first act, however, afforded her so little scope for acting, that she left the stage unassured of her own success. There was doubt before and behind the curtain. The critics had given no certain sign,—the general applause might have been merely an involuntary tribute to youth and beauty. Actors and actresses hung back,—even the friendly manager was guarded in his congratulations. But in the second act the debutante put an end to this dubious state of things,—at least, so far as her audience was concerned. “ The Captive Queen” took captive all, save that stern row of critics,—the indomitable, the incorruptible. Their awful judgment still hung suspended over her head.
In a scene with Osmyn Zelma first revealed her tragic power. In her fitful tenderness, in the passionate reproaches which she stormed upon him, in her entreaties and imprecations, she was the poet’s ideal, and more. She dashed into the crude and sketchy character bold strokes of Nature and illuminative gleams of genius, all her own.
Mr. Bury, as Osmyn, was cold and unsympathetic, avoided the eye of Zara, and was even more tender than was "set down in the book” to Almeria.
“ How well he acts his part!” said to herself the generous Zelma.
“How anxiety for his wife dashes his spirit! ” said the charitable audience,
At the close of this act the manager grasped Zelma’s hand, and spoke of her success as certain. She thanked him with an absent air, and gazed about her wistfully. Surely her husband should have been the first to give her joy. But he did not come forward. She shrank away to her dressing-room, and waited for him vainly till she knew he was on the stage, where she next met him in the great prison-scene.
In this scene, some bitterness of feeling—the first sharp pangs of jealousy— gave, unconsciously to herself, a terrible vitality and reality to her acting. She filled the stage with the electrical atmosphere of her genius. Waxen Almeria, who was to have gone out as she entered, received a shock of it, and stood for a moment transfixed. Even Osmyn kindled out of his stony coldness, and gazed with awe and irrepressible admiration at this new revelation of that strange, profound creature he had called “ wife.” She, so late a shy woodland nymph, stealing to his embrace,—now an angered goddess, blazing before him. calling down upon him the lightnings of Olympus, with all the world to see him shrink and shrivel into nothingness ! And all this power and passion, over-topping his utmost reach of art, outsoaring his wildest aspirations, he had wooed, fondled, and protected ! At first he was overwhelmed with amazement; he could hardly have been more so, had a volcano broken out through his hearth-stone; but soon, under the fierce storm of Zara’s taunts and reproaches, a sullen rage took possession of him. He could not separate the actress from the wife,—and the wife seemed in open, disloyal revolt. Every burst of applause from the audience was an insult to him; and he felt a mad desire to oppose, to defy them all, to assert a master’s right over that frenzied woman, to grasp her by the arm and drag her from the stage before their eyes!
This scene closes with a memorable speech:—
“ Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base injustice thou hast done my love!
Ay, thou shalt know, spite of thy past distress,
And all the evils thou so long hast mourned,
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned! ”
Zelma gave these lines as no pre-Siddonian actress had ever given them,— with a certain sublimity of rage, the ire of an immortal,—and swept off the scene before a wild tumult of applause, led by the vanquished critics. It followed her, surge on surge, to her dressing-room, whither she hastily retreated through a crowd of players and greenroom habitues.
That sudden tempest shook even the royal box. The King, who a short time before had been observed to nod, not shaking his “ambrosial locks” in Jovelike approval, but somnolently, started up, exclaiming, “ What! what! what’s that?”—and the Queen—took snuff.
In her dressing-room Zelma waited for her husband. “ Surely he will come now,” she said.
She had already put off the tragedyqueen ; she was again the loving wife, yearning for one proud smile, one tender word, one straining embrace. The tempest outside the curtaiu still rolled in upon her, as she sat alone, drooping and sad, a spent thunder-cloud. The sound brought her no sense of triumph; she only looked around her drearily, like a frightened child, and called, “ Lawrence ! ”
Instead of him came the manager. She must go before the curtain; the audience would not be denied.
Lawrence led her out,—holding her hot, trembling fingers in his cold, nerveless hand, a moody frown on his brow, and his lips writhing with a forced smile.
As Zelma bent and smiled in modest acknowledgment of renewed applause, led by royalty itself,—her aspirations so speedily fulfilled, her genius so early crowned,—even at that supreme moment, the grief of the woman would have outweighed the triumph of the artist, and saddened all those plaudits into knell-like sounds, could she have known that the miserable fiends of envy and jealousy had grasped her husband’s heart and torn it out of her possession forever.
In the death-scene, where the full tide of womanly feeling, which has been driven out of Zara’s heart by the volcanic shocks of fierce passions, comes pouring back with whelming force, Zelma lost none of her power, but won new laurels, bedewed with tears from “ eyes unused to weep.”
Zara dies by her own hand, clinging to the headless body of King Manuel, believing it to be Osmyn’s. Zelma gave the concluding lines of her part brokenly, in a tone of almost childlike lamenting, with piteous murmurs and penitent caresses:—
“ Cold, cold!—my veins are icicles and frost!
Cover us close, or I shall chill his breast.
And fright him from my arms!—See! see! he slides
Still farther from me! Look! he hides his face!
I cannot feel it!—quite beyond my reach!—
Ah, now he’s gone, and all is dark! ”
With that last desolate moan of a proud and stormy spirit, sobbing itself into the death-quiet, a visible shudder crept through the house. Even the King threw himself back in his royal chair with an uncomfortable sort of “ ahem! ” as though choking with an emotion of common humanity; and the Queen—forgot to take snuff.
From the night of her triumphant debut, the life of the actress ran in the full sunlight of public favor; but the life of the woman crept away into the shadow,— not of that quiet and repose so grateful to the true artist, but of domestic discomfort and jealous estrangement.
Nobly self-forgetful always, Zelma, in the first hour of success, feeling, in spite of herself, the pettiness and egoism of her husband's nature, with a sense of humiliation in which it seemed her very soul blushed, offered to renounce forever the career on which she had just entered. Mr. Bury, however, angrily refused to accept the sacrifice, though she pressed it upon him, at last, as a “ peaceoffering,” on her knees, and weeping like a penitent. “ It is too late,” he said, bitterly. “ The deed is done. You are mine no longer,—you belong to the public;—I wish you joy of your fickle master.”
From that time Zelma went her own ways, calm and self-reliant outwardly, but inwardly tortured with a host of womanly griefs and regrets, a helpless sense of wrong and desolation. She flew to her beautiful art for consolation, flinging herself, with a sort of desperate abandonment, out of her own life of monotonous misery into the varied sorrows of the characters she personated. For her the cup of fame was not mantling with the wine of delight which reddens the lips and “ maketh glad the heart.” The costly pearl she had dissolved in it had not sweetened the draught; but it was intoxicating, and she drank it with feverish avidity.
But for Lawrence Bury, his powers flagged and failed in the unnatural rivalship ; his acting grew more and more cold and mechanical. He became more than ever subject to moods and caprices, and rapidly lost favor with the public, till at last he was regarded only as the husband of the popular actress,—then, merely tolerated for her sake. He fell, or rather flung himself, into a life of reckless dissipation and profligacy, and sunk so low that he scrupled not to accept from his wife, and squander on base pleasures, money won by the genius for which he hated her. Many were the nights when Zelma returned from the playhouse to her cheerless lodgings, exhausted, dispirited, and alone, to walk her chamber till the morning, wrestling with real terrors and sorrows, the homely distresses of the heart, hard, absolute, unrelieved,— to which the tragic agonies she had been representing seemed but child's play.
At length, finding himself at the lowest ebb of theatrical favor, and hating horribly the scene of his humiliating defeat, Mr. Bury resolved to return to his old strolling life in the provinces. Making at the same moment the first announcement of his going and his hurried adieux to Zelma, who heard his last cold words in dumb dismay, with little show of emotion, but with heavy grief and dread presentiments at her heart, he departed. He was accompanied by the fair actress with whom he played first parts at Arden,—but now, green-room gossip said, not in a merely professional association. This story was brought to Zelma; but her bitter cup was full without it. With a noble blindness, the fanaticism of wifely faith, she rejected it utterly. “ He is weak, misguided, mad,” she said, “but not so basely false as that. He must run his wild, wretched course awhile longer,—it seems necessary for him; but he will return at last,—surely he will,—sorrowful, repentant, ‘in his right mind,’ himself and mine once more. He. cannot weary out God’s patience and my love.”
After the first shock of her desertion was past, Zelma was conscious of a sense of relief from a weight of daily recurring care and humiliation, the torture of an unloving presence, chill and ungenial as arctic sunlight. Even in the cold blank of his absence there was something grateful to her bruised heart, like the balm of darkness to suffering eyes. Her art was now all in all to her,—the strong-winged passion, which lifted her out of herself and her sorrows. She was studying Juliet for the first time. She had been playing for more than a year before she could be prevailed upon to attempt a ShakSpearian character, restrained by a profound modesty from exercising her crude powers upon one of those grand creations.
When, at length, she made choice of Juliet, what study was hers!—how reverent ! how loving ! how glad!—the perfect service of the spirit ! She shut out the world of London from her sight, from her thoughts, till it seemed lost in one of its own fogs. The air, the sky, the passion, the poetry of Italy were above and around her. Again she revelled in that wondrous garden of love and poesy, with a background of graves, solemnizing joy. Now her fancy flitted, on swift, unresting wing, from beauty to beauty,—now settled, beelike, on some rich, half-bidden thought, and hung upon it, sucking out its most sweet and secret heart of meaning. She steeped her soul in the delicious romance, the summer warmth, the moonlight, the sighs and tears of the play. She went from the closet to the stage, not brainweary and pale with thought, but fresh, tender, and virginal,—not like one who had committed the part of Juliet, but one whom Juliet possessed in every part. She seemed to bear about her an atmosphere of poetry and love, the subtile spirit of that marvellous play. There was no air of study, not the faintest taint of the midnight oil;—like a gatherer of roses from some garden of Cashmere, or a peasant-girl from the vintage, she brought only odors from her toil,—the sweets of the fancy, a flavor of the passion she had made her own.
On her first night in this play, Zelma was startled by recognizing among the audience the once familiar faces of her uncle Roger, her cousin Bessie, and Sir Harry Willerton. They had all come up to London to draw up the papers and purchase the trousseau for the wedding, which would have taken place a year sooner, but for the death of Bessie’s mother.
Squire Burleigh had been entrapped by his daughter and her lover into coming to the play,—he being in utter ignorance as to whom he was to see in the part of Juliet. When he recognized his niece in the ball-room scene, he was shocked, and even angry. He started up, impetuously, to leave the house ; and it was only by the united entreaties of Bessie and Sir Harry that he was persuaded to stay. As the play went on, however, his sympathies became enlisted, in spite of his prejudices. Gradually his heart melted toward the fair offender, and irrepressible tears of admiration and pity welled up to his kindly blue eyes. He watched the progress of the drama with an almost breathless interest while she was before him, but grew listless and indifferent whenever she left the stage. The passion of Romeo, the philosophy of the Friar, the quaint garrulousness of the Nurse, the trenchant wit of Mercutio were alike without charm for him.
But though thus lost in the fortunes and sorrows of the heroine of the play, the dramatic illusion was far from complete for him. It was not Juliet,—it was Zelma, the wild, misguided, lost, but still beloved child of his poor brother; and in his bewildered brain her sad story was strangely complicated with that of the hapless girl of Verona. When she swallowed the sleeping-draught, he shrank and shuddered at the horrible pictures conjured up by her frenzied fancy ; and in the last woful scene, he forgot himself, the play, the audience, everything but her, the forlorn gypsy child, the shy and lonely little girl whom long years ago he had taken on his knee, and smoothed down her tangled black hair, as he might have smoothed the plumage of an eaglet, struggling and palpitating under his hand, and glancing up sideways, with fierce and frightened eyes,—and now, when he saw her about to plunge the cruel blade into her breast, he leaped to his feet and electrified the house by calling out, In a tone of agonized entreaty,—“Don’t, Zelle ! for God’s sake, don’t! Leave this, and come home with us,—home to the Grange!”
It was a great proof of Mrs. Bury’s presence of mind and command over her emotions, that she was not visibly discomposed by this strange and touching appeal, or by the laughter and applause it called forth, but finished her sad part, and was Juliet to the last.
When, obeying the stormy summons of the audience, the lovers arose from the dead, and glided ghost-like before the curtain, Zelma, really pale with the passion and woe of her part, glanced eagerly at the box in which she had beheld her friends;—it was empty. The worthy Squire, overcome with contusion at the exposure he had made of his weakness and simplicity, had hurried from the theatre, willingly accompanied by his daughter and Sir Harry.
On the following day, sweet Bessie Burleigh, with the consent, at the request even, of her father, sought out her famous cousin, bearing terms of reconciliation and proffers of renewed affection.
The actress was alone. She had just risen from her late breakfast, and was in a morning costume,—careless, but not untidy. She looked languid and jaded; the beautiful light of young love, which the night before had shone with a soft, lambent flame in every glance, seemed to have burned itself out iu her hollow eyes, or to have been quenched in tears.
She flung herself on her cousin’s breast with a laugh of pure joy and a child’s quick impulse of lovingness; but almost immediately drew herself back, as with a sudden sense of having leaned across a chasm in the embrace. But Bessie, guessing her feeling, clung about her very tenderly, calling her pet names, smoothing her hair and kissing her wan cheek till she almost kissed back its faded roses. And infinite good she did poor Zelma.
Bessie—dear, simple heart!—was no diplomatist; she did not creep stealthily toward her object, but dashed at it at Once.
“ I am come, dearest Zelle, to win you home,” she said. “ You cannot think how lonely it is at the Grange, now that dear mamma is gone ; and by-and-by it will be yet more lonely,—at least, for poor papa. He loves you still, though he was angry with you at first,—and he longs to have you come back, and to make it all up with you. Oh. I am sure, you must be weary of this life,—or rather, this mockery of life, this prolonged fever dream, this playing with passion and pain ! It is killing you ! Why, you look worn and anxious and sad as death by daylight, though you do bloom out strangely bright and beautiful on the stage. So, dear, come into the country, and rest and renew your life.”
Zelma opened her superb eyes in amazement, and her cheek kindled with a little flush of displeasure; yet she answered playfully,—“What! would you resolve ‘the new star of the drama’ into nebulousness and nothingness again? Remember my art, sweet Coz ; I am a priestess sworn to its altar.”
“But, surely,” replied Bessie, ingenuously, "you will not live on thus alone, unprotected, a mark for suspicion and calumny; for they say—they say that your husband has deserted you.”
“Mr. Bury is absent, fulfilling a professional engagement. I shall await his return here,” replied Zelma, haughtily.
Bessie blushed deeply and was silent. So, too, was the actress, for some moments; then, softened almost to tears, half closing her eyes, and letting her fancy float away like thistle-down over town and country, upland, valley, and moor, she said softly,—“Dear Burleigh Grange, how lovely it must be now! What a verdurous twilight reigns under the old elms of the avenue!—in what a passion of bloom the roses are unfolding to the sun, these warm May-days! How the honeysuckles drip with sweet dews! how thickly the shed hawthorn-blossoms lie on the grass of the long lane, rolling in little drifts before the wind ! And the birds,—do the same birds come back to nest in their old places about the Grange, I wonder?”
“Yes,” answered Bessie, smiling; “I think all the birds have come back, save one, the dearest of them all, who fled away in the night-time. Her nest is empty still. Oh, Zelle, do you remember our pleasant little chamber in the turret ? I could not stay there when you were gone. It is the stillest, loneliest place in all the house now. Even your pet hound refuses to enter it.”
“ Now, my Cousin, you are really cruel,” said Zelma, the tears at last forcing their way through her reluctant eyelids. “ When I left Burleigh Grange, I went like Eve from Paradise,—forever.”
“ Ah, but Cousin dear, there is no terrible angel with a flaming sworl guarding the gates of the Grange against you.”
“Yes, the angel of its peace and ancient honor,” said the actress; then added, pleasantly, “ and he is backed by a mighty ogre, Respectability. No, no, Bessie, I can never go back to my old home, or my old self; it is quite impossible. But you and my uncle are very good to ask me, Heaven bless you for that! And, dear, when you are Lady Willerton, a proud wife, and, if God please, a happy mother, put me away from your thoughts, if I trouble you. Rest in the safe haven of home, anchored in content, and do not vex yourself about the poor waif afloat on wild, unknown seas. It is not worth while.”
So Bessie Burleigh was obliged to abandon her dear, impracticable plan; and the cousins parted forever, though neither thought: or meant it then. Bessie returned to Arden, married the master of Willerton Hall, and slid into the easy grooves of a happy, luxurious country-life; while Zelma rode for a few proud years on the topmost swell of popular favor,— then suddenly passed away beyond the horizon of London life, and so, as it were, out of the world.
One dreary November night, after having revealed new powers and won new honors by her first personation of Belvedere, Zelma went home to find on her table a brief, business-like letter from the manager of a theatre at Walton, a town in the North, stating that Mr. Lawrence Bury had died suddenly at that place of a violent, inflammatory disease, brought on, it was to be feared, by some, excesses to which he had been addicted. The theatrical wardrobe of the deceased (of small value) had been retained in payment for expenses of illness and burial; his private papers were at the disposal of the widow. Deceased had been buried in the parish church-yard of Walton. This was all.
Zelma had abruptly dismissed her maid, that she might read quite unobserved a letter which she suspected brought news from her husband; so she was quite alone throughout that fearful night. What fierce, face-to-face wrestlings with grief and remorse were hers! What, sweet, torturing memories of love, of estrangement, of loss! What visions of him, torn with the agonies, wild with the terrors of death, calling her name in vain imploring or with angry imprecations!—of him, so young, so sinful, dragged struggling toward the abyss of mystery and night, wrenched, as it were, out of life, with all its passions hot at his heart!
Hour after hour she sat at her table, grasping the fatal letter, still as death, and all but as cold. She yet wore the last dress of Belvedera, and was half enveloped by the black cloud of her dishevelled hair; but the simulated frenzy, which so late had drawn shuddering sighs from a thousand hearts, was succeeded by a silent, stony despair, infinitely more terrible. A sense .of hopeless desolation and abandonment settled upon her soul; the distances of universes seemed to separate her from the dead. But to this suddenly succeeded a chill, awful sense of a presence, wrapped in silence and mystery, melting through all material barriers, treading on the impalpable air, not “ looking ancient kindness on her pain,” but lowering amid the shadows of her chamber, stern, perturbed, unreconciled. All these lonely horrors, these wild griefs, unrelieved by human sympathy or companionship, by even the unconscious comfort which flows in the breathing of a near sleeper, crowded and pressed upon her brain, and seemed to touch her veins with frost and fire.
For long weeks, Zelma lay ill, with a slow, baffling fever. Her mind, torn from its moorings, went wandering, wandering, over a vast sea of troubled dreams,— now creeping on through weary stretches of calm, now plunging into the heart of tempests and tossed upon mountainous surges, now touching momently at islands of light, now wrecked upon black, desert shores.
All was strange, vague, and terrible, at first; but gradually there stole back upon her her own life of womanhood and Art,— its scenes and changes, its struggles, temptations, and triumphs, its brief joy and long sorrow, all shaken and confused together, but still familiar. Now the faces of her audiences seemed to throng upon her, packing her room from floor to ceiling, darkening the light, sucking up all the air, and again piercing her through and through with their cold, merciless gaze. Now the characters she had personated grouped themselves around her bed, all distinct, yet duplicates and multiplications of herself, mocking her with her own voice, and glaring at her with her own eyes. Now pleasant summer-scenes at Burleigh Grange brightened the dull walls, and a memory of the long lane in the white prime of its hawthorn bloom flowed like, a river of fragrance through her chamber. Then there strode in upon her a form of beauty and terror, and held her by the passion and gloom of his eye,—and with him crept in a chill and heavy air, like an exhalation from the rank turf of neglected graves.
Zelma recovered from this illness, if it could be called a recovery, to a state of only tolerable physical health, and a condition of pitiable mental apathy and languor. She turned with a half-weary, half-petulant distaste from her former pursuits and pleasures, and abandoned her profession with a sort of terror,—feeling that its mockery of sorrows, such as had fallen so crushingly on her unchastened heart, would madden her utterly. But neither could she endure again the constraint and conventionalities of English private life; she had died to her art, and she glided, like a phantom, out of her country, and out of the thoughts of the public, in whose breath she had lived, for whose pleasure she had toiled, often from the hidden force of her own sorrows, the elements of all tragedy seething in her secret heart.
Year after year she lived a wandering, out-of-the-way life on the Continent It was said that she went to Spain, sought out her mother’s wild kindred, and dwelt with them, making their life her life, their ways her ways, shrinking neither from sun-glare nor tempest, privation nor peril. But, at length, tired of wandering and satiated with adventure, she flung off the Zincala, returned to England, and even returned, forsworn, to her art, as all do, or long to do, who have once embraced it from a genuine passion.
She made no effort to obtain an engagement at Covent Garden; for her, that stage was haunted by a presence more gloomy than Hamlet, more dreadful than the Ghost. Nor did she seek to tread, with her free, unpractised step, the classic boards of Drury Lane,—where Garrick, the Grand Monarque of the Drama, though now toward the end of his reign, ruled with jealous, despotic sway,—but modestly and quietly appeared at a minor theatre, seeming, to such play-goers as remembered her brief, brilliant career and sudden disappearance, like the Muse of Tragedy returned from the shades.
She was kindly received, both for her own sake, and because of the pleasant memories which the sight of her, pale, slender, and sad-eyed, yet beautiful still, revived. Those who had once sworn by her swore by her still, and were loath to admit even to themselves that her early style of acting—easy, flowing, impulsive, the natural translation in action of a strong and imaginative nature—must remain what, in the long absence of the actress, it had become, a beautiful tradition of the stage,—that her present personations were wanting in force and spontaneity,—that they were efforts, rather than inspirations,—were marked by a weary tension of thought,—were careful, but not composed, roughened by unsteady strokes of genius, freshly furrowed with labor.
Mrs. Bury made a grave mistake in choosing for her second debut her great part of Juliet; for she had outlived the possibility of playing it as she played it at that period of her life when her soul readily melted in the divine glow of youthful passion and flowed into the character, taking its perfect shape, rounded and smooth and fair. Through long years of sorrow and unrest, she had now to toil back to that golden time,—and there was a sort of sharpness and haggardness about her acting, a singular tone of weariness, broken by starts and bursts of almost preternatural power. Except in scenes and sentiments of pathos, where she had lost nothing, the last, fine, evanishing tints, the delicate aroma of the character, were wanting in her personation. It was touched with autumnal shadows,—it was comparatively hard and dry, not from any inartistic misapprehension of the poet’s ideal, but because the fountain of youth in Zelma’s own soul ran low, and was choked by the dead violets which once sweetened its waters.
She felt all this bitterly that night, ere the play was over; and though her audience generously applauded and old friends congratulated her, she never played Juliet again.
Yet, even in the darker and sterner parts, in which she was once so famous, she was hardly more successful now. In losing her bloom and youthful fulness of form, she had not gained that statuesque repose, or that refined essence of physical power and energy, which sometimes belongs to slenderness and pallor. She was often strangely agitated and unnerved when the occasion called most for calm, sustained power,—at times, glancing around wildly and piteously, like a haunted creature. Her passion was fitful and strained,—the fire of rage flickered in her eye, her relaxed lips quivered out curses, her hand shook with the dagger and spilled the poison. Her sorrows, real and imaginary, seemed to have broken her spirit with her heart.
But in anything weird and supernatural, awful with vague, unearthly terrors, she was greater than ever. Whenever, in her part of Lady Macbeth, she came to the sleep-walking scene, that shadowy neutral ground between death and life, where the perturbed, burdened spirit moans out its secret agony, she gave startling token of the genius which had electrified and awed her audiences of old. A solemn stillness pervaded the house; every eye followed the ghostlike gliding of her form, every ear hung upon the voice whose tones could sound the most mysterious and awful depths of human grief and despair.
It was during the first season of her reappearance that Mrs. Bury went to Drury Lane, on an off-night, to witness one of the latest efforts of Garrick as Richard the Third. He was, as usual, terribly great in the part; but, in spite of his overwhelming power, Zelma found herself watching the Lady Anne of the night with a strange, fascinated interest. This part, of too secondary and negative a character for the display of high dramatic powers, even in an actress who should be perfect mistress of herself, was borne by a young and beautiful woman, new to the London stage, though of some provincial reputation, who on this occasion was distressingly nervous and illassured. She had to contend not only with stage-fright, but Garrick-fright. “ She met Roscius in all his terrors,” and shrank from the encounter. The fierce lightnings of his dreadful eyes seemed to shrivel and paralyze her; even his demoniac cunning and persuasiveness filled her with mortal fear. Her voice shook with a pathetic tremor, became hoarse and almost inaudible ; her eyes sank, or wandered wildly ; her brow was bathed with the sweat of a secret agony; she might have given way utterly under the paralyzing spell, had not some sudden inspiration of genius or love, a prophetic thrill of power, or a memory of her unweaned babe, come to nerve, to upbear her. She roused, and went through her part with some flickering flashes of spirit, and through all her painful embarrassment was stately and graceful by the regal necessity of her beauty. The event was not success,— was but a shade better than utter failure; and when, soon after, that beautiful woman dropped out of London dramatic life, few were they who missed her enough to ask whither she had gone.
But Zelma, whose sad, searching eyes saw deeper than the eyes of critics, recognized from the first her grand, longsought ideal in the fair unknown, whose name had appeared on the play-bills in small, deprecating type, under the overwhelming capitals of “MR. GARRICK” —“Mrs. Siddons." She looked upon that frightened and fragile woman with prophetic reverence and noble admiration; and as she walked her lonely chamber that night, she said to herself, somewhat sadly, but not bitterly,—"The true light of the English drama has arisen at last. ‘ Out, out, brief candle ! ’ ”
Season after season, year after year, Zelma continued to play in London, but never again with the fame, the homage, the flatteries and triumphs of a great actress. All these she saw at last accorded to her noble rival. Mrs. Bury had shone very acceptably in a doubtful dramatic period,—first as an inspired, impassioned enthusiast, and after as a conscientious artist, subdued and saddened, yet always careful and earnest; but, like many another lesser light, she was destined to be lost sight of in the long, splendid day of the Kembles.
Yet once again the spirit of unrest, the nomadic instinct, came back upon Zelma Bury,—haunted her heart and stirred in her blood till she could resist no longer, but, joining a company for a provincial tour, left London.
The health of the actress had been long declining, under the almost unsuspected attacks of a slow, insidious disease. She was more weak and ill than she would confess, even to herself; she wanted change, she said, only change. She never dreamed of rest. Week after week she travelled,—never tarrying long enough in one place to weary of it,—the peaceful sights and sounds of rural life tranquillizing and refreshing her soul, as the clear expanse of its sky, the green of its woods and parks, the daisied swell of its downs refreshed and soothed her eye, tired of striking forever against dull brick walls and struggling with smoke and fog.
Then May came round,—the haunted month of all the year for her. The hawthorn-hedges burst into flower,—the highways and by-paths and lanes became Milky Ways of bloom, and all England was once more veined with fragrance,
They were in the North, when one morning Zelma was startled by hearing the manager say that the next night they should play at Walton. It was there that Lawrence Bury died ; it was there he slept, in the stranger’s un visited grave. She would seek out that grave and sink on it, as on the breast of one beloved, though long estranged. It would cool the dull, ceaseless fever of her heart to press it against the cold mound, and to whisper into the rank grass her faithful remembrance, her forgiveness, her unconquerable love.
But it was late when the players reached Walton ; and, after the necessary arrangements for the evening were concluded, Zelma found that she had no time for a pilgrimage to the parish churchyard. She could see it from a window of her lodgings;—it was highwalled, dark and damp, crowded with quaint, mossy tomb stones, and brooded over by immemorial yews. In the deepening, misty twilight, there was something awful in the spot. It was easy to fancy unquiet spectres lurking in its gloomy shadows, waiting for the night. Yet Zclma’s heart yearned toward it, and she murmured softly, as she turned awav, “ Wait for me, love !”
The play, on this night, was “ The Fair Penitent.” In the character of Calista Mrs. Bury had always l>een accounted great, though it was distasteful to her. Indeed, for the entire play she expressed only contempt and aversion ; yet she playol her part in it faithfully anti carefully, as she performed all professional tasks.
In reading this tragedy now, one is at a loss to understand how such trash could have been tolerated at the very time of the revival of a pure dramatic literature, —how such an unsavored broth of sentiment, such a meagre hash of heroics, could have been relished, even when served by Kembles, after the rich, varied, Olympian banquets of Shakspeare.
The argument is briefly this:—
Calista, daughter of Seiolto, is betrothed to Altamount, a young lord, favored bv Seiolto. Altamount has a friend, Horatio, and an enemy, Lothario, secretly the lover and seducer of Calista, whose dishonor is discovered by Horatio, shortly after her marriage with Altamount, to whom he reveals it. Calista denies the charge, with fierce indignation and scorn ; and the young husband believes her and discredits his friend. But the fourth act brings the guilt of Calista and the villany of Lothario fully to light. Lothario is killed by the injured husband, Seiolto goes mad with shame and rage, and Calista falls into a state of despair and penitence.
The fifth act opens with Sciolto’s elaborate preparations for vengeance on his daughter. The stage directions for this scene are,—
[“d room hung with block: on one side Lotharin's body on a bier ; on the other t table, with a skull mid other bones, a book, and a lamp on it. Calista is discovered on a couch, in black, her hair hanging loose and disordered. A fter soft music, she rises and comes Jim ward. ’ ’ J
She takes the book from the table, but, finding iL the pious prosing of some “ lazy, dull, luxurious gownsman,” flings it aside. She examines the cross-bones curiously, lays her hand on the skull, soliloquizing upon mortality, somewhat in the strain of Hamlet; then peers into the coffin of Lothario, beholds his pale visage, “grim with clotted blood,” and the stern, unwinking stare of his dead eyes. Seiolto enters and bids her prepare to die ; but while she stands meek and unresisting before him, his heart fails him ; lie rushes out, and is shortly after killed by Lothario’s faction. Calista then dies by her own hand, leaving Altamount desperate and despairing.
Poor Calista is neither a lovely nor a lofty character; but there is something almost grand in her fierce pride, in her defiant hauteur, in her mighty struggle with shame. Mrs. Siddons made the part terribly impressive. Mrs. Bury softened it somewhat, giving it a womanly dignity and pathos that would seem foreign and almost impossible to the character.
When Zeltna entered her dressingroom, on that first night at Walton, she found on her table a small spray of hawthorn-blossoms.
11 How came these flowers here ? ” she asked, in a hurried, startled tone.
“ I placed them there,” replied her little maid, Susan, half-frightened by the strange agitation of her mistress. “ I plucked the sprig in our landlady’s garden ; for 1 remembered that you loved hawthorn-blossoms, and used often to buy them in Covent-Garden Market.”
“ Ah, yes; thank yon, Susan. I do indeed love them, and I will wear them tonight.”
As she said this, she placed the flowers in her bosom,—font, the little maid noticed, noL as an ornament, but quite out of sight, where her close bodice would crush them against her heart.
During the first acts of the play, Zelma was languid, absent, and more unequal than usual. A strange sense of evil, a vague foreboding, haunted her. It was in vain that she said to herself, “ What have L a lonely, disappointed woman, loveless and joyless, to fear of misfortune more,—since death itself were welcome as change, and doubly welcome as rest?” The nameless fear still clung to her, sending cold thrills along her veins, fiercely grasping and holding her palpitating heart.
When, in the last act, reclining on her sombre couch, she waited through the playing of the “ soft music,” there came to her a little season of respite and calm. Tender thoughts, and sweet, wild fancies of other days revisited her. The wilted hawthorn-blossoms in her bosom seemed to revive and to pour forth volumes of fragrance, which enveloped her like an atmosphere ; and as she rose and advanced slowly toward the foot-lights, winking dimly like funeral lamps amid the gloom of the scene, it strangely seemed to her that she was going down the long, sweet lane of Burleigh Grange. The magic of that perfume, and something of kindred sweetness in the sad, wailing music, brought old times and scenes before her with preternatural distinctness. Then she became conscious of a something making still darker and deeper the gloomy shadows cast by the black hangings of the scene,—a presence, not palpable or visible to the senses, but terribly real to the finer perceptions of the spirit,—a presence unearthly, yet familiar and commanding, persistent, resistless, unappeasable,—moving as she moved, pausing as she paused, clutching at her hands, and searching after her eyes. The air about her seemed heavy with a brooding horror which sought to resolve itself into shape,—the dread mystery of life in death waiting to be revealed. Her own soul seemed groping and beating against the veil which bides the unseen; she gasped, she trembled, and great drops, like the distillation of the last mortal anguish, burst from her forehead.
She was roused by a murmur of applause from the audience. She was acting so well ! Nerving herself by an almost superhuman effort, her phantomhaunted soul standing at bay, she approached the table, and began, in a voice but slightly broken, the reading of her melancholy soliloquy. But, as she laid her hand on the skull, she gave a wild start of horror,—not at the touch of the cold, smooth bone, nor at the blank, black stare of the eyeless sockets, but at finding beneath her hand a mass of soft, curling hair, damp, as with night-dew!—at beholding eyes with “ speculation ” in them, —ay, with human passions, luminous and full,—eyes that now yearned with love, now burned with hate,—ah, God! the eyes of Lawrence Bury !
With a shrill, frenzied shriek, Zelma sprang back and stood for a moment shuddering and crouching in a mute agony of fear. Then she burst into wild cries of grief and passionate entreaty, stretching her tremulous hands into the void air, in piteous imploring.
“ She lias gone mad ! Take her away! ” shouted the excited audience ; but before any one could reach lier, die had fallen on the stage in strong convulsions.
The actors raised her and bore her out; and as they did so, a lirtle stream of blood was seen to bubble from her lips. A medical man, who happened to be present, having proffered bis services, was hurried behind the scenes to where the sufferer lay, on a rude couch in the green-room, surrounded by the frightened players, and wept over by her faithful little maid.
The audience lingered awhile within sound of the fitful, frenzied cries of the dying actress, and then dispersed in dismay and confusion.
Zelma remained for some hours convulsed and delirious; but toward morning she sank into a deep, swoon-like sleep of utter exhaustion. She awoke from this, quite sane and calm, but marble-white and cold,—the work of death all done, it seemed, save the dashing out of the sail, wild light yet burning in her sunken eyes. But the bright red blood no longer oozed from her lips, and they told her she was better. She gave no heed to the assurance, but, somewhat in her old, quick, decisive way, called for the manager. Scarcely had he reached her side, when she began to question him eagerly, though in hoarse, failing tones, in regard to the skull used in the play of the preceding night. The manager had procured it of the sexton, he said, and knew nothing more of it.
She sent for the sexton. He came,— a man “ of the earth, earthy,”—a man with a grave-ward stoop and a strange uneven gait, caught in forty years’ stumbling over mound*. A smell of turf and mould, an odor of mortality, went before him.
lie approached the couch of the actress, and looked down upon her with a curious, professional look, as though he were peering into a face newly coffined or freshly exhumed ; but when Zelma fixed her live eyes upon him, angry and threatening, and asked, in abrupt, yet solemn tones, “ Whose was that skull you brought for me last night. ?” he fell back with an exclamation of surprise and terror. As soon as he could collect himself sufficiently, lie replied, that, to the best of his knowledge, the skull had belonged to a poor play-actor, who had died in the parish some sixteen or, it might be, eighteen years before; and compelled by the merciless inquisition of those eyes, fixed and stern, though dilating with horror, he added, that, if his memory served him well, the player's name was Bury.
A strong shudder shivered through the poor woman's frame at this confirmation of the awful revealment of the previous night; but she replied calmly, though with added sternness,—“He was my husband. How dared you disturb his bones? Are you a ghoul, that you burrow among graves and steal from the dead ? ”
The poor man eagerly denied being anything so inhuman. The skull had rolled into a grave he had been digging by the side of the almost forgotten grave of the poor player; and, as the manager had bespoken one for the play, lie had thought it no harm to furnish him this. But he would put it back carefully into its place that very day.
“ See that you do it, man, if you value the repose of your own soul! ” said Zelma, with an awful impressiveness, raising herself on one elbow and looking him out of the room.
When lie was gone, she sunk back and murmured, partly to herself, partly to her little maid, who wept through all, the more that she did not understand,—“I knew it was so; it was needless to ask. Well, 'tis well; he will forgive me, now that I come when he calls me, accomplishing to the utmost my vow. He will make peace with me, when I take my old place at his side,—when my head shall lie as low as his,—when he sees that all the laurels have dropped away,— when he sees the sorrow shining through the dark of my hair in rifts of silver.”
After a little time she grew restless, and would return to her lodgings.
As the doctor and her attendant were about placing her in a sedan-chair to bear her away, a strange desire seized her to behold the theatre and tread the boards once more. They conducted her to the centre of the stage, and seated her on the black couch of Calista. There they left her quite alone for a while, and stood back where they could observe without disturbing her. They saw her gaze about her dreamily and mournfully; then she seemed to be recalling and reciting some favorite part. To their surprise, the tones of her voice were clear and resonant once more; and when she had ceased speaking, she rose and walked toward them, slowly, but firmly, turning once or twice to how proudly and solemnly to an invisible audience. Just before she reached them, she suddenly pressed her hand on her heart, and the next instant fell forward into the arms of her maid. The young girl could not support the weight—the dead weight, and sank with it to the floor. Zelma had made her last exit.