THE jets in the great chandelier were slowly lowered ; the large semicircle of the auditorium, over which the flutter of fans and ripple of smiles suggested the fugitive effect of breezes and butterflies about a bed of flowers, sank gradually into deep shadow ; the footlights became suddenly brilliant; the prompter’s bell tinkled; the curtain glided upward; the second act had begun, and Prince Roderic advanced down the right centre to a soft pizzicato movement of violins, through which floated the melody, sustained by cornets and flutes.
A round of applause greeted him. The curtain had fallen upon him as the central figure of an effective scene, and the situation was one which appealed to the sense of pity and the sense of justice, thus moving the popular heart. And now was introduced in hiding in certain woods this potentate, vaguely described as prince, deposed from his indefinite high station through his own confiding nature and the machinations of a false and trusted friend, whose office seemed to embrace all the functions of a Grand Vizier. Abundant opportunity was afforded for soft and deft stepping about and for graceful attitudinizing, as the prince assured himself that no hidden foe lurked in ambush among the trees and rocks. Satisfied that he was alone, save for a thousand or so people in the audience, who do not count, except in the sordid computations of the ticket office, he gave himself up to despairing reflections on his situation, supplemented by vows, in sufficiently heroic strain, of vengeance. His voice, rich and robust, embodied a certain nobility, and the covertly martial orchestration heightened the effect. The contrast to sudden tenderness — expressing the idea of an amazed incredulity and grief for the perfidy of his friend — in the succeeding movement was so well done, assisted as it was by a very soft and taking melody, that it brought down the house and extorted an encore.
It is seldom that any prince, on or off the stage, is watched with such a corn plication of feelings as those which animated a pair of violet eyes in one of the proscenium boxes. Felicia had been married six months, and this was her first acquaintance with the prince — as a prince. To the mere man she had given much intelligent appreciation and her tender heart; now, what of the prince ? She was proud of him ; she could not help that, — he did it so well. Her musical training had been sufficient to enable her enthusiastically to admire his voice and gauge the extent of its culture. She was ashamed of him, — that he should display himself and his capacities so that all these people, who had paid their money, might be entertained, might approve or disapprove at their good pleasure. She pitied him. To her it all seemed so small, so false, so utterly unworthy of him ; and yet he was so thoroughly satisfied with it, and — he did it so well. And she had discovered that it was no light task, — to do this well. She had had glimpses of the incessant labor; the unceasing exercise of judgment, of patience, of memory; the tense strain on the nerves; the exhausting attention to detail, that go to make that airy structure, a success on the lyric stage, which presents the very perfection of spontaneous inspiration.
She had arrived late, and had missed the first act. When he came walking down the stage in this new guise, so strange to her, she felt her heart beating fast and heavily, and the color slowly left her face. It returned with a rush when the sound of clapping hands broke the silence, and she leaned slightly forward, watching him with a grave face and intent eyes.
Thus she was looking at him when he caught sight of her.
There was little change in her since the enchanted days of last summer; none but a keen observer might detect a subtler expression on her expressive features. Something was suggested of the emotions of a woman who loves entirely and is entirely loved. There was beside something more complex than this, — not pain, not restlessness, yet partaking to a degree of each, and contending with that deeper, stiller look which happiness had given to her face.
This was a good deal to see in one half minute, but Hugh Kennett saw with his intellect and his heart as well as with his eyes, while, with long golden curls hanging beneath his plumed hat, and arrayed in a costume of violet velvet, combining two tones, very faint and very dark, which gave back the lustre of the footlights, yet held rich shadows, he stepped deftly about in his search for Prince Roderic’s implacable foes among the tangled intricacies of the canvas rocks and bushes.
As the tenor finished his encore, the baritone came on in a green hunting suit, apparently winding a silver horn, which office was judiciously delegated to a member of the orchestra. Felicia gathered that the baritone and the prince were rivals in love, and that the baritone had left the court in dudgeon because of the prince’s presumptive success with the lady previous to his exile, brought about by the perfidious Grand Chamberlain. There was a melodic defiance, pitched on a high key, and later, when matters were explained, much graceful and musical magnanimity on both sides. With the offer on the part of the baritone to join the usurper’s forces, and to introduce the prince in disguise into his own dominions, in an effort to regain his status, the scene closed ; the silver horn was again wound ; the prince, by agreement, passed up the left centre; and a party of huntsmen came into view at the back of the stage, to the prelude of a dashing chorus chronicling the joys of the chase.
The face with which Hugh Kennett dropped into a chair in his dressingroom, after changing his costume, was not Prince Roderic’s face, nor was it the serene face he usually wore. The paint did not obscure its expression: it was anxious ; it held some impatience, some depression, some uncertainty. “ How did she happen to come?” he said to himself. And then, “ I suppose she considers me a sort of Harlequin,” he reflected, bitterly.
Abbott entered a moment later. He too had changed his dress, substituting for the green hunting suit a blue and white costume very resplendent with silver lace, supposed to be the acceptable court attire. He flung himself into another chair, lighted a cigar, and for a moment the two men were silent.
The room was small and in disarray. Much - bedizened costumes were tossed about the chairs ; several pairs of stage slippers were on the floor ; the gas-jets on each side of a mirror were alight, and from the elbow of one of the brackets depended a blond wig. The hair was very long and curled, and the effect was that of a decapitated head as the locks waved in the breeze, for the window was open. It was a warm night for the season, — the first week in April; there had been rain, and the air was heavy. Abbott picked up a palm-leaf fan, and as he swayed back and forth he fanned himself. His mobile, irregular face was in this brilliant light ghastly and unnatural, with its staring contrasts of red and white ; those heavy lines about his mouth and brow were plastered over, but there were black semicircles under his eyes. His nervous temperament was manifest by the restlessness of his movements : he changed his attitude abruptly ; he glanced about him with eagerness ; he plied the fan with energy ; the very act of rocking was done with a rapid, uncertain motion.
“ Your wife is here, he said, suddenly.
Kennett glanced at him.
“ I don’t mean in here,” said Abbott, with a laugh. “ Outside, — in the audience, — in one of the boxes.
“ I know it,” returned Kennett.
There was a short pause.
“ She does n’t honor you often,” remarked Abbott.
Kennett made no reply. These men had known each other long and well ; each was perfectly aware of the other’s thought, — nay, Abbott even divined his friend’s impulse to declare that her absence was through his own desire, and the instantaneous rejection of the halfformed intention as useless for the purpose of deception. And Kennett knew that Abbott was triumphant because she had not come before this, and was contradictorily and characteristically resentful of her neglect.
“ Sometimes I think,” Abbott went on, reflectively, “ that it is best for a man not to marry out of meeting, as the Quakers say.” He himself had married, while yet a chorus singer, a young girl with a rustic style of beauty, also a chorus singer, who had left the stage before progressing beyond that point.
Kennett again said nothing.
“ The identity of interest, — that’s the thing; the sympathy, you know. I suppose it is impossible for an outsider to feel it exactly.”
“ If you lay down a general rule, no doubt you are right,” returned Kennett, coolly.
Abbott looked at him hard, with a feeling which is somewhat difficult of analysis. His was a nature in which the sweet and bitter were mixed in exact proportions. There was something feminine in his disposition, illustrated just now in an impulse to say that which would cut and rankle; yet his affection for his friend was strong and sincere. His unreasoning and unreasonable perversity went hand in hand with magnanimity. He could throw himself with ardor into another man’s effort, sincerely sympathize with his defeat and rejoice in his achievement; and he could no more refrain, when in the mood, from gibe and fleer than a freakish woman, in irritation or disappointment, can leave unuttered the word that stabs the heart she loves best. He had, at the time, deplored Kennett’s marriage as a calamity. Judge Hamilton and his son might possibly have enlarged their estimate as to the scope of human impudence, if they could have divined Mr. Abbott’s point of view. Since that event he had not altered his opinion.
After a pause he spoke again.
“ Marriage is a mistake, and don’t you forget it,” he said, thoughtfully ; “that is, for a man with ambitions. It does well enough for mediocrity.”
Kennett looked at him fixedly, with set teeth and compressed lips, which brought into play the latent fierceness his square lower jaw could express ; there was a steely gleam in his gray eyes.
The crisis required only a look. Abbott retreated in good order. He glanced innocently at his friend and vaguely about the room, fanning himself and smoking.
“ Good house,” he remarked, with a nod in the direction of the audience.
“ The duet went well,” said Kennett.
“ You bet,” rejoined Abbott.
His quick sense caught the step of the advancing call-boy before the door was opened. He sprang from his chair to the mirror, took a swift, comprehensive look at himself, readjusted with a dextrous hand the collar of stage jewels about his throat, and vanished without another word.
Kennett, left alone, rose and walked to the window. His step was heavier than its wont. A warm, dank breeze was blowing ; the clouds were low. The sounds from the street, the rattle of wheels as a carriage drew up near the mouth of the alley, the pawing of a horse, the accents of a voice raised in objurgation, the distant tinkle of car-bells, came muffled on the thick air ; an almost imperceptible drizzle of rain made itself felt on his face. It was an imprudent thing for him — the most prudent of men — to stand in his airy attire at the open window, and it was almost equally imprudent to give himself up to his purely personal interests, in this interval which belonged, as distinctly as active duties, to his professional work. Instead of devoting the wait to mere mental and physical rest, or to the anticipation of what remained to be done in the next hour, his mind was busy with a brief review of the last six months and the effect of a foreign influence on his life. Abbott’s ill-natured dictum came back to him with malignant iteration. Was his marriage a mistake ? For his own heart, his happiness, he indignantly denied this. But for his ambitions, his future, his artistic development ?
So far the foreign influence had been negative. Felicia had held apart from his professional life ; she had ignored as much as was practicable the fact that he had any life except the one she shared. In the early weeks of their marriage, the perception had come to him that her persistent pretexts for declining to accompany him to the performances and rehearsals were part of a premeditated plan. When he realized this he ceased to urge her, and without explanation there came to be a tacit agreement that his stage life was a thing apart from his domestic life. It was very quietly but very firmly accomplished. He winced under it, but his pride was roused, and he accepted the situation without protest. Now he was asking himself how it was that a mere negative influence could chill. He did not believe that a difference was as yet perceptible in his work, for thorough training and the habit of a lifetime go far as substitutes for ardor, but he sometimes knew — and it was growing upon him — a deepfelt want; he recognized it, — it was a lost impulse, a lost inspiration. While still in his possession it had dignified his calling, it had made toil light, it had invested the tedious details with recurrent interest. Now that he missed it he appreciated its worth both as a sentimental possession and as a tangible factor in achievement. He wondered how this would end; he wondered if a change was impending ; he wondered how she happened to come here to-night. He wondered again if she rated him as a bedizened Harlequin,—it must be all buffoonery to her.
The call-boy stuck his head in at the door.
“ Stage waits.”
The reflections that had absorbed the last ten minutes narrowly missed being a singularly unfortunate preparation. For the first time in many years Kennett experienced, as he left the wings, the poignant anguish of stage fright. He pulled himself together by a great effort; he called up all his faculties. At this moment he met her eyes again ; she smiled, and her face wore an expression he often saw in that closer life which had come to be so much dearer to him than his public life. Under the impetus of the thought that perhaps after all she might reconcile those diverse existences he regained his self-command, but he was vaguely aware of a sub-current of surprised dismay that her approval or her objection should exercise so strong a control. His capacities had responded to that smile of hers like a horse to a touch on the curb.
The representation continued to a felicitous conclusion. The usurper, unconscious of his impending doom, robed in power and red velvet, made welcome the stranger — all unsuspecting the prince in disguise — in a fine bass solo, embodying some elements of self-gratulation and braggadocio which afforded the opportunity for an arrogant and mocking ha ! ha ! peculiarly rich and full. Laughing and dying were conceded to be this gentleman’s province; and he presently demonstrated his claim to superiority in the latter accomplishment when the counterplot culminated, and, overwhelmed and despairing, he stabbed himself, circumventing the representatives of justice, who would fain have dragged him to a dungeon, by dying melodiously in E minor. The rightful prince was restored to his possessions, including the heart of the soprano ; the baritone made the timely discovery that he had mistaken his feelings, had been unawares interested in another young lady, and was satisfied with her hand ; the faithful adherents vociferously proclaimed their joy ; the orchestra sympathetically and vivaciously accented their sentiments; the tableau formed itself swiftly and incomprehensibly into a glittering semicircle of brilliant colors and flower-like faces ; the lights in the auditorium brightened ; the curtain slowly descended ; there was a final crash and bang of instruments, and the performance was over.
As she stood watching the audience, making its way out of the building, a note was brought to Felicia. It was signed with Kennett’s initials, and merely asked her to wait for him a few moments. In a short time he entered the box.
An old lady, whom he had not before observed, was with his wife, — a sedate old lady, dressed with punctilious regard to the fashion in some respects, and in other respects disdainfully ignoring it. She regarded him intently when he was presented, and the three made their way across the street to the hotel. At supper, of which she was induced to partake, she gazed at him with a covert curiosity, which had in it something at once ludicrous and embarrassing. She accorded the gravest attention to whatever he said, and seemed to weigh carefully her somewhat commonplace and obvious replies. Before the conclusion of the meal she demurely bade them good-night, adding that she was unaccustomed to such late hours, and betook herself to her own room.
“ Who is she ? ” asked Kennett, as the rustle of her black silk dress died on the air.
“ She is the wife of one of my father’s old friends. Her husband and she happened to be passing through the city. I met her in the hotel parlor, and asked her to go to the opera.”
“ She seemed to think me a queer fish.”
Felicia laughed. " You must forgive her,” she said. " This is a remarkable experience; she never before took supper with a singer and a singer’s wife.”
He did not quite comprehend her tone, and he was vividly conscious that for the first time she had mentioned him as a singer and herself as a singer’s wife. Nothing more was said on the subject until they returned to their own room. She threw herself into a low chair, and he lighted a cigar and stood near her, with his elbow on the mantelpiece.
“ This is a new departure, is n’t it? ” he asked, after a pause.
She raised her eyes slowly. " It is an experiment,” she replied.
“ Why did you come ? ”
“ I thought the other experiment had been tried sufficiently.”
“ Has it failed ? ”
“ I think it has.”
He walked up and down the room for some moments, with his hands behind him ; then resumed his former place and attitude.
“ What was your experiment, Felicia ? ”
“ I wished to prove to myself that in marrying a singer I had not necessarily married his profession.”
“ And you did not prove it?” She did not reply directly.
“ A woman who marries a lawyer takes no thought of his clients ; a woman who marries a doctor, — what does she care for his patients or their diseases ? I suppose Sophie hardly knows whether her husband deals in cotton, or wheat, or dry goods. Your vocation is business, like any other pursuit: women have nothing to do with business.”
“ You dislike it so much,” he said, not interrogatively.
“ Oh, so much! ” cried Felicia, impulsively. Then she checked herself. “ I take that back. I should not say that. You chose your line in life long before you ever met me ; it has the prior right. I don’t complain.”
“ If you dislike it so much,” he said, disregarding her retraction, “you need see very little of it. Why not continue as we have begun ? ”
All at once he was made aware that while he was enacting mimic woes a drama of real feeling had been going on very near to him. Again she lifted her eyes, and now their expression cut him deeply ; her lips were quivering.
“ I am so lonely.” she said, simply.
It is a bitter thing for a sensitive man to see that look on the face of the woman he loves, and to realize that he is to blame that she should be called upon to endure the feeling which elicits it. For the first time he took into consideration the fact of his own absorptions : of his eager and unfailing response to the demands of his profession. He saw in a swift mental review what her life must be as a whole. He realized the gaps of time that she must sit alone in the hotel bedroom, with its dismal simulacrum of comfort, and occasionally of luxury; in the huge caravansaries which marked their progress eastward or westward. What could she do with the hours that she thus waited for him to come from rehearsals and the evening performances ? Write letters ? To whom ? All her valued friends she had alienated by her marriage. To be sure, there were books, painting, fancy-work. These, he realized with sudden insight, are the resources of people who are not living their own dramas. Of what did she think in those long hours ? Did memory take possession of her ? So young a woman should have nothing to do with memory. Ah, had regret too made acquaintance with her heart, while he was away? He appreciated that she must have experienced much of the sensation of isolation. Her connection with the little world of theatrical people amounted to a formal bow to certain members of the troupe, in the hotel dining-rooms or on the trains, and for many reasons he hardly cared to have this otherwise. He recalled now — it had made scant impression at the time
— the gleeful interest with which she recounted, one day, in Buffalo, an interview she had had with a little girl, who had stopped her in a corridor tearfully to relate her woes, exhibit a broken doll, and be consoled. Once when she had attended a morning service in Washington, — alone, for he was no church-goer,
— the white-haired old lady to whose pew she was shown had spoken to her, and hoped she would come again. She had recurred to the circumstance more than once; saying wistfully that she wished they could stay longer in Washington, and that they knew some one who could introduce them to that old lady, — it would be “ so pleasant.” And once in New York Madame Sevier had called; he had fancied, that evening, there were evidences of tears on his wife’s face, but she said nothing, and the incident slipped into the past.
This had been her social life for the last six months, —she whose instinct for human companionship was so strong and had been so assiduously cultivated. Even of his leisure he had been unconsciously chary, giving much of it to the details of his work ; only this very day she had waited long by the piano until he satisfied himself that certain passages were susceptible of no further improvement.
In this sudden enlightenment other facts acquired new meaning. There was now something pathetic in the touches of ornamentation about them. He had been amused by her efforts to give a homelike look to the stereotyped rooms of the hotels at which they had temporarily lived, in their ceaseless progress “ on the road.” She had provided herself with vases, portières, books handsomely bound and illustrated ; the tables were draped with embroidered covers ; the two armchairs were decorated with scarfs. He had called these things her properties, and had laughingly threatened to send them on ahead with the stage effects of the troupe. Now he was touched by the feminine longing for a home and its associations which this tendency implied. For himself, his personal tastes were of the simplest.; perhaps the attention to matters of effect and fabric incident to his professional life had satisfied whatever predilection in that line he possessed.
When a man has been successful, flattered, admired, and always in the right, and when he suddenly discovers that he is in the wrong and his feeling is deeply involved, expressions do not readily present themselves. Kennett’s thought was — and at the time it was perfectly sincere— that his insensibility had been brutal. To her he said nothing for some moments.
“ Try to like us!” he exclaimed at last, with emotion. " There are some good men and women among us. There are even some agreeable people among us. Idealize us a little. Half the world lives and is happy by means of illusions; why not you ? ”
But even while he spoke there came upon him a stunning realization that many conditions were utterly metamorphosed by the changed point of view. His toleration in judgment, which she had once noticed, was exercised instinctively, good-humoredly, but always impersonally. These men and women, for example, whom he mentioned, many of them sterling, hard-working, talented, — he could approve of them as members of society, as his own casual associates, his comrades, his friends. But it had not before occurred to him that he had judged them leniently because he had held himself a little — just a very little — above them ; that for many complicated and subtle reasons he condescended ; he felt himself a little above the profession. It was a fine thing in its way, and eminently calculated, taking into view his peculiar order of talent, to advance him. He felt that this was an absurd position for him to have assumed. He was with the operatic stage, he was of it; his interests were identical with the interests of those he had unconsciously patronized ; they were his circle ; they must necessarily be his wife’s circle, unless she preferred isolation.
The next day she went with him to rehearsal.
There was much to interest her in her new experience, and she did not observe that she herself was the object of curiosity and covert attention on the part of members of the troupe, as she sat in the dim twilight of one of the proscenium boxes. The huge empty semicircle of the auditorium was unlighted save by a long slanting bar of sunshine that shot adown the descent of the dress circle. The stage also was dim, although several gas-jets were burning. A number of men and women in street attire were grouped about, presenting a very different appearance from the glittering throng of last night. Many of the faces were at once curiously young and old. Some were careworn ; some were anxious ; some were bold; some were hard; many told no story and held no meaning. A man evidently in authority was talking loudly and vivaciously; now and then he walked about fitfully, and occasionally he gesticulated in illustration of his words. Most of his hearers had so bored and inattentive a look that it might have seemed worn of set purpose. The members of the orchestra lounged in their places, their instruments ready.
The weather had changed in the course of the night; a cold wind was blowing. The building was not well heated, and from some opening at the back of the stage came a strong draught, bringing a damp, vault-like taste and odor. Felicia, who had removed her wrap, an expensive fur garment, more in keeping with her previous circumstances than her present, shivered slightly. Kennett rose and readjusted it about her.
“ Don’t signalize the occasion by taking cold,” he said.
A voice behind him broke upon the air, — a mocking, musical, penetrating voice, subtly suggestive of possibilities and of meanings not to be lightly understood.
“ ‘ Benedict, the married man ’! ” exclaimed the voice.
Kennett turned his head. “ Is that you, Abbott?” lie said. “Come in.”
Abbott entered, and seated himself near them.
“ Don’t let your husband lavish his care,” he continued. “ It will not do for him to be thoughtful and attentive, like any commonplace, good husband.”
“ I think it is very proper for him to get my cloak,” returned Felicia, a trifle aggressively.
“ That is only a little thing, but it shows which way the wind blows.”
“ It seems to blow every way to-day,” interpolated Kennett, lightly.
“ He has, or has had up to this time, a sort of divine right to immunity from small cares ; it has been his prerogative to make himself comfortable.”
“ Abbott, thinks I am selfish,” said Kennett.
“ You are if you know what’s good for you, and don’t you forget it,” retorted Abbott, quickly.
Felicia, irritated by the imputation and offended by the slang, was silent for a moment, but her interest in the subject prevailed.
“ Why should he be selfish?” she asked, stiffly.
“ Because, when a man has a great future, he can’t give himself a thought too many.”
“ Has he a great future ? ”
Abbott looked at her steadfastly, then at his friend. Kennett’s fine gray eyes rested tranquilly on Abbott’s unquiet, expressive face, cut by deep lines of hope, of disappointment, anxiety, excesses ; his eyes, too, were gray, but eager, fiery, restless, penetrating. The two men exchanged a long look.
“ Well? ” said Kennett, smiling.
“ I don’t know,” answered Abbott, shortly. He turned his face toward the stage.
Changes were in progress there. The talking man was loquaciously retiring, looking over his shoulder. A lady in a gray dress and cloak, and with a black feather in her hat, had detached herself from the others, and advanced toward the footlights. She glanced about her hardily, and shrugged her shoulders with a show of contemptuous impatience as the stage manager’s prelection seemed suddenly to take a new lease, and he continued speaking. All at once he came to a standstill. “ Now there’s your cue, Miss Johnson,” he said, — “ ’ Me hopes, me honor, and me broken heart! ’ Go ’n ! ” very peremptorily.
She began to declaim in the loud, hard stage voice which has so unnatural a sound in an empty theatre.
A man with a worn face and a blasé air had placed himself near her, and at his cue took part in one of those dialogues so useful as connecting links of the story. Little of action was required, but even that little was not satisfactory ; the talking man found it desirable several times to dart forward and eagerly correct, explain, and suggest. At last there came a rap of the conductor’s baton, — the members of the orchestra were tense and alert in their places; another rap, — the dialogue developed into a duet, and the duet was succeeded by a chorus.
It had seemed to Felicia that disproportionate care and pains were requisite for individual excellence ; she now saw that even more were necessary to produce a good ensemble effect. Again and again the sharp raps of the baton resounded with a peremptory negative intention, which brought a sudden silence, invaded in a moment by the melancholy voice of the Gallic leader, with unexpected pauses and despairing inflections.
“That was ‘orrible, ’orrible, ‘orrible ! ” he said, definitely ; or, “ A mos’ slovenly attac ! ” or, “ Tenors, you sing a minor third instead of a major third ; ” or, “ Mon Dieu ! Sopranos ! Sopranos, you are fl-l-l-at ! ”
When at last the chorus was progressing smoothly Kennett rose.
“Au revoir,” said he to Felicia; and she fancied that there was something propitiatory, even appealing, in his expression. Did he recommend Abbott to her leniency, and vicariously deprecate her criticism ?
“ Now watch them tumble to his racket,” Abbott said.
He misunderstood the haughty displeasure on her face. All the nicer issues of social training were as a sealed book to him. He did not dream that the rudeness of his phrase was in her estimation almost criminal; that she deemed slang — unless, indeed, it were the trick of expression of “ the best people,”and not fairly to be called slang at all — as an affront to her and a degradation to him. He placed his own interpretation on her evident intolerance.
“ Confound the little minx, she is ashamed of him ! ” he thought, angrily.
“ She must have married him in a freak. She considers herself too good for him, and he with the best voice of its class in America.”
He looked at her resentfully.
Her attention had become riveted on what was in progress before her. She had noticed, the previous evening, the marked effect of Kennett’s presence on the stage. Life was infused into the inert business; among the other singers there was sudden alertness of glance and intention; the action began to revolve about him as if animated by his controlling thought; smoothness and ease replaced mere mechanical effort, under the strong influence of an intelligent enthusiasm and a magnetic personality.
The manager, at the back of the stage, leaned against the frame of the canvas, took off his hat, mopped his face with his handkerchief, and uttered an audible “ Whew-w ! ” in which were infused both fatigue and relief. Abbott called Felicia’s attention to him,
“ The governor feels easier now that Kennett is on. He’s worked pretty hard to-day. Looks all tore up, don’t he ? ” Felicia disdained to say that the governor did or did not look “ tore up.”
“ You see that woman with dark hair, in a black dress? She is under-studying Miss Brady. She can sing if she only has a chance. You bet your sweet life she goes into some church after every rehearsal, and prays God Almighty and the saints that the other woman may get run over by the street-car or the fire-engine, or something.” He looked with a laugh into Felicia’s horror-stricken eyes. “ For a fact she does. Told me so herself. You see she’s waiting for her promotion. She used to be with the Vilette Company, until they went to pieces last fall ; then she ” —
Felicia lifted her hand imperiously, imposing silence. “ He is going to sing.”
There had floated upon the air a prelude familiar to her. She leaned slightly forward, her eyes on him while he sang, all unconscious that Abbott’s eyes were on her. No man, especially with the soul of an artist in him, could misinterpret that expression: her face was for the moment transfigured by the emotion upon it; so proud, so tender, so absolutely enthralling, was it, — as intense and as delicate as white fire.
Abbott looked at her meditatively. “The man.” he said to himself, “has got a big possibility in the future; and the woman thinks small beer of his future, and don’t care a continental for his best possibility ; and, God help ’em, they love each other. Now, what are they going to do about it ? ”
It was his opinion, frequently expressed, that a man was a fool to fall in love. He cogitated on this theory with reference to the present case. After a time he rose, left the box unobserved, and went to wait for his cue at one of the wings.
Under the ethereal fire of those violet eyes, the man with a possibility in his future sang well that day. The members of the orchestra laid down their instruments and applauded. The stage manager bawled that it would be an easier world if there were more like him. The other singers looked at him with eyes animated by every degree of intelligent admiration and appreciative envy. It seemed to Felicia that it was distinctly an ovation he was receiving; she wondered that adulation had not spoiled him. She did not realize that with a fully equipped capacity ambition dwarfs possession.
As he went off, he encountered Abbott in the narrow passway between two “sets.” Each placed his hands on his friend’s shoulders and looked long into his eyes.
“Well?” said Kennett, in the tone with which he had uttered the word an hour before.
“ If this world does not offer you everything heart can desire in the next five years, it will be your own fault — or your wife’s fault! ” cried Abbott, with the thrill of sincere feeling in his voice.
“ I shall have everything that heart can desire ! ” exclaimed Kennett, airily.
“ There’s your cue, old fellow.” And he went back, with a satisfied smile, to Felicia.
He noticed, as the rehearsal proceeded, that Preston often looked with some wistfulness at their box, as he lounged at the back of the stage and about the wings. During one of the waits he stood near them, and Kennett called him in an undertone.
“I must go on again in a few moments,” he said to Felicia, “but Preston will come and talk to you.”
Preston was evidently pleased and flattered, but to Felicia’s surprise he was inclined to taciturnity. He was bold enough among men, — in fact, he was sometimes accused of impudence, — and not too gentle and meek with the women with whom he was usually thrown. In the little world of the troupe he was considered by the feminine members a singing Adonis, and was greatly approved ; with them he was gay, boisterous, flippant. But with Felicia he was shy. He was quick of perception : when she bent her violet eyes upon him and allowed her gracious smile to rest on her lips, he apprehended that the gentle demonstration was merely a surface effect; it was not the flattering and flattered smile he was accustomed to receive. He appreciated the dignity underlying the soft exterior of her manner, and realized that she probably had a distinct ideal of the proper thing to be and to feel, to which he might not altogether conform. This sort of influence makes many a man restive and defiant, and it is to Oliver Preston’s credit that he was a trifle timid and propitiatory.
Their conversation, constrained at first, grew gradually more easy. She drew him on to talk of himself. She saw presently that he was not by any means so young as his boyish manner and regular, delicate features made him seem. With her alert interest in the vivid drama of life and character, she speculated on this existence of his, and the strange fact that excitement and variety do not make the inroads on mind and body which are compassed by inaction and tranquillity. He had happened to mention that he was thirty-two years old. “ At that age men in little country towns are advancing into middle life,” she said to herself, while he has the buoyancy, and to all intents the youthfulness, of twenty.”
After a time she was struck by something unfeeling in his tone, — the more objectionable in that he was unconscious of it. When the contralto was sharply reprimanded for a mistake in a short interjectionary phrase, which threw the other singers out and necessitated repetition, he laughed with genuine gusto that she should become confused, blunder again, then dash at her phrase with ludicrous precipitancy. “ What a fool! ” he said, contemptuously. “ And flat besides.”
He listened with great attention while Abbott sang a solo, saying, at its close :
“ Abbott will never get much further than he has already gone. He is limited,”he added, with a certain complacence.
“ I think he has a very beautiful voice,” remarked Felicia.
He reflected a moment.
“ Yes, it is sympathetic and true, and it has a vibrating quality, but it is uneven ; both the upper and lower registers are better than the middle. Then he works spasmodically; he is kept down by his habits. Sometimes he does pretty well for a while ; then, the first week off he gets, he puts in every minute painting the town red.”
Felicia looked at him with wide eyes. “ Did you say painting?” she asked. " Do you mean pictures ? ”
His laughter rang out so suddenly that the people on the stage glanced at them in surprise; even the conductor twisted adroitly in his place, and turned upon them his gleaming spectacles, his eyebrows raised to an acute angle.
Preston smothered his merriment, and explained : —
“ No, no. I mean he drinks, — gets on a long spree, —tipsy, you know.”
“ Oh-h ! ” exclaimed Felicia, enlightened.
“ Abbott says,” continued Preston, “ when he sees how Kennett is running for the cup, he feels like a man who has been buried alive. He says he wants Kennett to win. That is what he would do if he could get out from under the ground.”
This figure of a despairing and buried ambition, and this wistful and generous acceptance of an humble share in another man’s triumph, denied to him, touched Felicia. She looked with meditative pity at Abbott’s Ugly, expressive face, with its spent fires and spoiled purposes. His melodious voice was at its best in the soft melancholy of love songs; he was singing a serenade now, and the building was filled with the insistent iteration of tender strains.
“ ‘ Buried alive,’ ” she repeated. “ I think it is very sad that he should feel that.”
“ I think it is very funny,” said Preston, with a rich ha ! ha! He really thought so. Tragedy of feeling was, in his opinion, good stuff to act; as to sympathizing with a man’s heart-break, how could he understand the language as foreign to him as if spoken by the inhabitants of Jupiter or Mars? He lived in another world.
“ Why does he drink, then ? ” he asked, after a pause, as if realizing that something deeper was expected of him, and vaguely defending himself. “ No fellow pays him anything for drinking.”
He was regaining his usual mental attitude, which was a trifle dictatorial and tyrannical, as that of a spoiled young fellow is apt to be. When he presently went on, he said in a grumbled aside to Abbott that Kennett had all the luck, got all the plums,— a big salary, and managers always patting him on the back, and now marrying “ a tip-top woman like that.”
As the rehearsal drew toward its close, a marked change was perceptible in the spirit of the performers. An air of great fatigue had come upon them, and the lassitude which accompanies continuous and exhausting effort of brain and body. With the physical break-down the moral supports gave way ; they were evidently as cross as they dared to be. The stage manager was more eager, excited, and far more impatient than when the morning’s work began. The conductor sometimes laid down the baton, rubbed with both sinewy hands the wisps of scanty hair on each side of his brow, took off his spectacles, replaced them, and resumed the baton with a loud, long sigh. Of the singers, Kennett only was unharassed. “ I suppose that is part of his system of ‘ running for the cup,’ ” thought Felicia.
It seemed to her that the performers took pleasure in annoying each other, and presently this theory received confirmation. One of the chorus— a small girl, with a dainty figure, a pert face, black hair, and a somewhat conspicuous dress, of red and black plaid — had been more than once called sharply to order for inattention. After the last of these episodes, as the music, which was in valse time, recommenced, she defiantly placed her arms akimbo, tossed her head saucily, and began to balance herself with the perfunctory dance steps which, with appropriate costumes, serve for the ball-room illusion in the modern light opera. She looked mischievously at the tenors near her, and a few of the younger men laughed, but the others discreetly kept their eyes before them, and forbore to smile. The manager, in a rage, stopped the orchestra, and advanced upon her with an oath that was like a roar.
“ Quit that damned monkeying ! ” He caught her arms and thrust her back to her place ; then, as he turned, a sudden thought struck him. He wheeled abruptly, and, with a grotesque imitation of her attitude, ludicrously caricatured her dancing. She shrank back, blushing and discomfited, as a peal of appreciative laughter rewarded the managerial pleasantry.
When he had advanced upon the girl with that loud oath, Felicia had cowered as if herself threatened by a blow. She glanced at the other men, in expectation of their interference. Abbott’s mouth was distorted by an abnormal grin. Kennett was looking with a contemptuous smile from the absurdly dancing manager to the equally absurd victim. Preston’s handsome head was thrown back ; his white teeth gleamed under his black mustache, while the building echoed with his delighted laughter.
The chorus was the last work of the day, and as Kennett rejoined his wife he found her standing at the entrance of the box with brilliant cheeks and flashing eyes.
“ Why did n’t you strike him, Hugh ? Why did n’t you knock him down ? ” she cried, impulsively.
“ Who? ” he demanded, in amaze.
“ That man, — that stage manager.”
“ For what ? ” he asked, completely at sea.
“ For swearing at that girl, and pushing her, and mocking her.”
He looked at her in silence.
“ Felicia,” said Hugh Kennett at last, with a long-drawn breath. “ I would not imperil my prospects by striking a stage manager for the sake of any chorus girl on the face of the earth.”
She thought at the moment that, this was cruel and selfish to the last degree.
Fanny N. D. Murfree .