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(this was his occupation, his profession), while the generous woman, abounding in happy thoughts, but unedited and unpublished, stood there in the rising tide like the nymph of a fountain in the plash of the marble basin.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