One Night on the Stage 1

CHAPTER 1. THE IMPRESARIO.

Mr. Rossi sat in his study (his “studio” he always called it), a large, comfortable, but not over-tidy room in Charles Street. The walls were covered with portraits of theatrical celebrities. John Kemble with his solemn face and mourning dress, skull in hand, Grisi as Norma, Malibran as Desdemona; whilst, above these noble tragic countenances, Taglioni, as La Sylphide, balanced herself buoyantly, amidst scenic shrubs and rosebushes, on the extreme point of her small white satin shoe.

Letter-boxes and card-racks were filled to overflowing; a bouquet of exotics, fading for want of fresh water, exhaled its dying sweetness amidst rolls of music, printed or copied, a large receptacle for cigars and a smaller one for their ashes. Each article was costly, yet the ensemble was dirty and disorderly. Several musical instruments scattered about might have led to the belief that the owner was an artist, had not something in the man himself contradicted this first impression.

He was a short barrel of a man, with a face struggling between its native John Bullishness and its assumed foreign decorations; a round bald head with the hair brushed up very much at the sides, prominent grey eyes, a large full mouth displaying a row of the most regular white teeth (in fact, a set of ” Rogers’s new patent without metal fastenings”), and a splendid crop of whiskers and moustachios dyed to the darkest brown which could be supposed to belong to the owner of the light eyes.

Jack Ross — or as he signed himself Giacomo Rossi — was the son of a country grocer who, coming up to London, to spend his patrimony, and having succeeded by the help of various theatrical tastes, had ended by engaging a provincial theatre, and managing it very satisfactorily, until step by step he had worked his way back to London to speculate grandly as a manager there.

As Rossi sat buried in his cushioned chair, slowly puffing his Havannah, he also studied a sample advertisement just offered to him by a pale, thin, poverty-stricken youth, who stood humbly before him listening to his employer, as he read aloud to judge of its effect:

“‘Giacomo Rossi having, we understand, realised a snug little fortune abroad by his very successful administration of theatrical domains—’

“Not bad that, Crowe ” — [puff from cigar.] —” ‘is enabled to undertake what less successful managers have in vain attempted.’ ” — [Puff.] — “‘He has taken the Regent Theatre for the purpose of establishing a genuine English opera company — English in every sense — singers, scene painters, decorators, all are to be natives of our own isle, and Britons may learn that they are no more to be conquered in the field of art than in that of war. The company—’

“No, Crowe; I don’t like company, it’s vulgar; put corps dramatique.”

“I thought,” said Crowe, quietly, “it was to be all English.”

“Why, what a fool you are, Crowe! Do you think they would ever have any faith in the concern if it were advertised in plain English? Well, to proceed.

—” ‘The corps dramatique is composed entirely of English artistes, and the season is to open by the production of an entirely new opera from the pen of our clever—’

“No; not clever, I prefer gifted.

—” ‘Of our gifted countryman, Hugo Kossini Smith, entitled Joan of Arc, or the Maid of Domremy.’

“So far so good; but now should come the list of singers, and I have found no English primadonna — in fact, there is none to find. I must have something good to keep up the house, for there is old Barber to do the Dauphin — enough to empty it any night, except just of a few old fogies who remember him sixty years ago, and still swear by him. To engage a foreigner would be too flagrant after all my promises. Miss Watson is my only chance — a magnificent voice! but, faugh! what can she do with it? And as for acting, my walking-stick would have more idea of it.”

“Some one knocked at the door, sir.”

“Then open it!”

The meek Crowe obeyed, and the visitor came strolling in, and dropped, as if exhausted, into the arm-chair opposite Smith. He was a very tall, gaunt, young man, with tolerably good features and eyes, a beard of several days’ growth, a shirt of apparently several weeks’ wear, and the cuffs, very much ink-stained, turned back to display a pair of long bony hands, armed with black claws, which evidently had not even a passing acquaintance with soap and water. If only this man could have been washed, and shaved, and clothed afresh, you would have considered him a very good-looking fellow. Ah! what a mistake. Hugo Rossini Smith was a genius on the strength of his dirt, his rudeness, and his eccentricities; his musical talent was ordinary enough, but his appearance was unique.

I once knew an old match-seller who, from illness, was reduced to enter the workhouse, where she was at once put into a warm-bath, and, when she emerged again into society, her picturesqueness, her misery, had faded away; she only looked like any other clean, comfortable, old woman, and her trade was bad in proportion to her cleanliness. It took her months to acquire once more her stock in trade of rags and ingrained filth, and she would speak with great pathos of the workhouse episode of her existence, exclaiming:—

“They bil’d me, my dear! they bil’d me!”

That bath would have been equally fatal to the great composer Hugo Rossini Smith; it would have reduced him to the ordinary standard of civilised men. Now, he was beyond the pale of proprieties, and less bold spirits worshipped him accordingly — women particularly, who would delight in the pressure of that greasy palm, and look up with admiration at that grimy face.

Yes; Mr. Smith was a genius. ” Our great English composer” was his ordinary cognomen.

The great Englishman’s melodies reminded you of Auber; but his own playing of his own compositions had the effect of some prodigious steam mechanism (at least to the uninitiated) —buzz— whizz—up and down—ease her—back her—let her go—crescendo— accelerando to the very last chord, when it ended in a sudden explosion, with apparently no object at all for all that fuss. You draw a long breath at finding that you are not literally blown up; but Hugo’s face meanwhile beams with inspiration, he shakes his long locks, sways his body to and fro, kicks his legs about, convulsed by the throes of genius like the Pythoness of antiquity, and you are half convinced that there was really a cause for all this stir as the great artist wheels round on his music-stool, pale, limp, exhausted, apparently unheeding the reviving cries around of “Wonderful!” “Admirable!”

You do him justice; it was surprising, but it would have been puzzling to explain what others admired.

“Well, Smith, my good fellow, comment ca va? Try a cigar?” .

“But so-so,” was the reply, whilst the dirty hand grasped the proffered cigar. “I’m worked to death, Rossi — absolutely dead! They won’t let me alone.”

“Well, I’m glad you have found your way here at any rate, I wanted to speak to you. I’m afraid we shall have to engage Miss Watson, after all.”

“Miss Watson translate my immortal Joan! — never!”

“Then Joan won’t be translated, as you call it, at all; she’ll be a dead language” — and the manager was still laughing at his own wit when the door opened, and Crowe announced “A lady, sir, wishes to see you!” Rossi looked somewhat embarrassed. “A strange lady,” explained the man, and Rossi’s brow cleared.

“She would not give her name, she wanted you solely on business, she said,” and even as he spoke the visitor entered.

She was a dark elegant woman, not very young nor very pretty, and after a glance of curiosity the great composer subsided into a reverie, still puffing his cigar, and watching in profound abstraction the curling wreaths of smoke. The manager, not being a genius, could afford to be civil, so threw the remainder of his cigar into the fire, and placed a comfortable seat for the lady, as far as possible from the smoker.

“I heard that you were forming an English company,” began the lady with forced composure, “and I am come to offer myself to you as chief soprano.”

The manager stared at her boldness, the composer twisted himself round to examine her more closely, and both looked at each other with a slight smile at her astonishing presumption. For in spite of her calm bold words she was a modest looking woman, evidently not one of themselves, “but of that class commonly known as shabby genteel. But the Impresario piqued himself on his politeness to the weaker sex, so he merely asked courteously:

“May I know, madam, what have been your previous engagements?”

“I never sang in public in my life, but I was at one time well used to private theatricals” (the composer’s lips curled in intense scorn, and Rossi could hardly conceal his smile.) “My voice has been well cultivated – Crivelli was my master You have only to judge for yourself. I do not ask to be engaged by you unless you are satisfied of my competency.”

Rossi rose and opened his piano with a sly glance at his friend, who returned it, and both prepared for a little amusement at the poor lady’s expense.

“Do you prefer accompanying yourself?” he asked.

“No, I can sing better standing, of course.”

Here Smith rose and turning over a pile of music, rather maliciously, drew from thence the opera of Robert le Diable.

“See,” said he, “suppose you give us this first great air of Alice, Va! dit-elle.’”

A pleased look stole over the lady’s face, and she assented cheerfully — taking off her bonnet, she stood quietly by the piano. She looked so much handsomer now that her beautiful head was revealed, wreathed with silky coils of black hair, and her eye sparkled with so bright an intelligence that the gentlemen somewhat abated their scorn, and were not so much surprised at the rich quality of the voice which struck upon their ear.

There was a little tremor in the first words of that message of the dying mother to her libertine son, but that was soon lost in the earnestness of her own enjoyment of the music; and as she threw her whole soul and voice into the last reiteration of the phrase, “Sa mere priera pour lui!” those two men who had so long made a mere trade of the beautiful art were subdued, enchanted, conquered entirely.

There was a decided moisture in Rossi’s blue eyes, and the composer for five whole minutes ceased to remember the existence of the great Hugo Rossini Smith! And the pale, shabbily-dressed woman, who felt their emotion, stood with no feeling of triumph in her breast, but a prayer of thankfulness for her success — she had children at home who wanted bread!

There was a silence of some moments, during which the manager recovered his presence of mind, and remembered that he must now probably drive a bargain.

“Very finely rendered, madam, I must say — no doubt as to your voice and method — but are you quick at study?”

“I can keep pace with the others, I suppose.”

“We mean to begin by an entirely new opera. Allow me to introduce you to the composer, Mr. Smith, whom doubtless you already know musically, and in my turn may I ask your name?”

The lady blushed and hesitated. The manager laughed.

“Not provided with a nom de guerre, eh? Suppose we say Miss Percy — Maude Percy?”

The name was accepted. There was a long conversation about salary, length of engagement, rehearsals, and other matters of business, and the lady hastened to her humble home with the first act of Joan of Arc in her hand, to work her very hardest, while the two men in the most delighted enjoyment adjourned to an oyster luncheon at Verey’s.

”I tell you what, Smith, that is a lady of rank in disguise!”

“Nonsense, you don’t know her.”

“Well, if she is not, she is to be; so hint the report everywhere. —Your health, Miss Percy, in a bumper of Chablis.”

And whilst the lady walked on full of hope, and the gentlemen drank, poor humble Crowe sat before the open piano with the song she had sung unfolded before him, in a perfect stupor of delight at the sounds which still rang in his ears.

Poor fellow, he had come out as a boy prodigy under Rossi’s management, but his voice had failed, his health had failed — worse than all, his spirit had failed; and he was now a sort of secretary — in truth, a servant — to the man who had once made a handsome little fortune by him. Music was his only happiness, but it was beyond his reach now that his childish voice was lost. Nature had allowed him small intelligence, but had given him a sensitive heart.

CHAPTER II. JOAN OF ARC.

Rehearsals went off periodically, throwing the composer into alternate fits of hope and dejection, as the stars lent to his music a character to which he had scarcely himself aspired, or the chorus, on the other hand, drove him to despair with false notes and bad time, for which he was also not responsible. Great was the interest excited by the unknown prima donna, who seemed to belong to no one, to come from nowhere.

The manager did his best to encourage the mystery, and whilst declaring he knew nothing of her residence, family, &c., assumed an amused air as if he knew a great deal, and could astonish them not a little if he were not bound to secrecy. As for Hugo Rossini Smith, he entirely lost what heart he had.

She would make his fortune, increase his reputation; he hardly knew his own airs again, such melody did her exquisite voice lend to them, such passion did she give to his tamest passages. The opera promised to be highly successful, the cognoscenti admitted to the rehearsals raved about Joan of Arc.

It is true that the plan of the work reminded them of a well-known modern French drama, and that there was scarcely a movement of which they could not say, “I think I have heard that before,” but then if not original it was not ugly; there were some startling orchestral effects, the scenery and costumes were superb, and, above all, there was Maude Percy, the new English prima donna. The print-shops were full of portraits of Maude Percy, a tall tragic lady, in very complete evening costume, bearing not even a shadow of resemblance to the original save in the arrangement of the hair.

But when Smith expressed his admiration in the most glowing terms (he who had hitherto been content with allowing himself to be admired), the lady cut him short in the coldest language, and seemed entirely bent on understanding music only, and perfecting her operatic part. Once when he went into a rhapsody on her personal charms — her hair, her eyes, her graceful figure — she turned to him quickly, “Ah ! if I could only believe in the sincerity of your praise!”

“Well, if you could, what then — speak!”

“Why, it would be a great relief, for others may prove as indulgent as you are, and I am tormented with the idea that after all the public may think it absurd in a woman of thirty to personate the youthful maid of Orleans.”

“The public, it is always the public!” muttered the disappointed composer, biting his dirty nails.

“Undoubtedly it is — for whom are we working both of us? For whom am I to act and sing? Who is to establish my profession for me?” and she walked away without awaiting an answer.

How unlike the flattery Hugo was in the habit of receiving from the fair sex, and yet he perpetually renewed his court to meet with nothing but coldness, disdain even. One comfort had he — no one was more successful than himself — if he might not be happy he could not be jealous.

Only poor Crowe hovered about the stage, and seemed more stupid than ever after each rehearsal; above all, if he won, as he sometimes did, a kind look or word from the bright star.

At length the great night arrived: the little pursy manager bustled to and fro behind the scenes in a very mingled condition of pleasure, anxiety, and excitement. The composer, got up for the occasion in the most romantic style, in vain endeavoured to conceal his agitation, and to keep up the poetical abstracted reverie in which he feigned to live, careless alike of the world’s praise or censure.

“A capital house, Smith, capital house! boxes filling fast, and not standing room in the pit; and I understood there was such a crowd at the lobby door that three ladies fainted and one man had his arm broken; quite beyond my hopes, really — but I am afraid it is too good to be true. Come now, you fellows, clear away those pewter pots; can’t you wait to get drunk till you have done your work? Ah! there’s Dubois — no though, egad! I must not call him by his own name, I forgot it was changed to Harrison — he takes his baton. Now for your overture, Smith. What a pretty house it is!”

But Hugo Smith could not distinguish a note of his overture for the intense throbbing of his heart; he stood unconsciously wiping away the cold damp from his forehead with a white handkerchief, till Rossi shoved him aside, and bade him go to his box, for the curtain was just about to be drawn up.

The overture was received coldly enough, but loud were the plaudits that greeted the opening scene — the distant village of Domremy, the little inn, the open green where stood a rough stone trough, surmounted by a rude cross. Here were assembled a troop of mercenary soldiers recently beaten by the English, who sang of course the opening drinking chorus, throwing their tin cups into the air and drinking out of them again, after the orthodox habit of stage wine-bibbers.

But the last verse was little heeded, for from the inn steps out a slight graceful figure, on whom all eyes are instantly fixed. She watches the soldiers enter the inn-porch, before she slowly advances to the foot-lights as a soft symphony is played. There she stands, in a costume as simple, an attitude as pensive, as Scheffer’s beautiful home-sick Mignon, and scarcely looking older. With true taste she takes no notice of the applause called forth by her appearance, nor drops a prima donna curtsey, forgetful of the peasant maiden.

A few words of recitative, descriptive of the miserable state of the subdued country, revealed the richness of her organ, and then burst forth the grand air in which she dedicated herself to the service of France, ending by a prayer for divine assistance. It was no longer an actress, a singer, it was the Maid herself; her dark eyes beaming with inspiration, her slight form glowing with courage, her whole person noble and exalted.

From that moment all comments were hushed. The audience followed her, as in a trance, through all the scenes, listening only to her: when she knelt reverentially before the holy visions; when she entered the church at midnight to claim the mysterious sword; when she stood by the Dauphin with her white banner to witness his coronation; when she rallied the soldiers on the walls of Orleans; when she wept alone, wounded, dejected in her prison; when she walked firmly to the blazing pile, singing the prayer of the first scene, once more dignified and inspired.

The curtain fell; then, and then only, did admiration find a voice, the whole house rose in a tumult of delight — the women waved their handkerchiefs, wet with their tears, the men shouted and threw Mowers on the stage, and the pale exhausted singer bowed modestly and withdrew. It was not till there was no hope of coaxing her back, that there was a feeble call for the composer, who instantly rushed on in a wild eccentric fashion, and shook his long mane at the public, who, alas! had nearly forgotten him.

When he withdrew he eagerly sought out the heroine of the night. She was going away as usual alone: it was clear she had no husband, no brother, no belongings; on such a night of triumph who would not have been proud to have appeared as her escort?

“Will you not allow me to see you safely home?” he whispered, as he opened the door of the cab.

She hesitated an instant.

“Yes,” she said, “this once you shall see my home.”

He jumped in delighted, exclaiming, “There will soon be an end of hackney cabs; a neat little brougham and a fine horse and stylish liveries — that must soon be yours. And jewels! why I’ll engage that by this time to-morrow you will be half a dozen diamond bracelets richer than you are to-day. Alas, poor me! what chance shall I have then?”

He looked languishing, but she did not seem to understand him, and he was afraid of going too far lest she should be offended instead of indifferent. At last the cab stopped. They entered a mean dingy-looking house, the door of which was opened by an old female servant, who looked in intense surprise at the hirsute composer. No one came forward, anxious to hear of her triumph: there was no word, no smile of welcome for the lone woman who had that night become the queen of a vast and coveted empire.

She took the candle from her servant, and ascended the staircase, followed by the wondering Smith, who noticed that the stair carpet was worn to its last shreds, that the paper, the paint, all he could see, were old, meagre, poverty-stricken. She opened a door on the first landing, and held the candle over a bed where lay sleeping a handsome boy of ten years old. She passed through into another room, where two little girls reposed, side by side, a lovely picture of innocence and confidence. O how beautiful, how tender was the gaze of the mother who contemplated them, and how its very purity rebuked the watcher of the group.

“There, sir, now you have seen my home; these children depend entirely on my exertions; and I have no aim in this life but their welfare — they alone have caused me to exercise my one talent, at any cost. The diamond bracelets you spoke of, the increased salary — all, all would be changed into food and clothing for them. I value no praise, no compliment, but as a means of helping them.”

There was a pause of some moments, whilst the man turned his eyes alternately from the happy children to the pale over-worked mother.

“Have you then lost your husband?” he asked, in a softened tone.

A look of anguish crossed her features, and with a burning blush she answered, “Yes: I have lost him — he is gone!”

And the composer understood that she was not a widow. Her husband lived, but he was lost, indeed — he was a drunkard!

“Thank you,” said Smith, with altered mien, “I shall not forget your home; I will intrude on you no longer.” And with a respectful bow he left the poor shabby house, sanctified by the presence of pure maternal love.

(To be continued.)

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