CHAPTER III. TRIBULATION.
Mrs. Neville (that was Maude Percy’s real name) retired to rest very late that night; she was so tired, so exhausted, she could scarcely call forth courage to undress, yet when she was in bed she could not sleep. This wonderful success, this lucrative career opened to her when all else had failed, the immense efforts she had made to conquer her timidity, and the enthusiasm she had raised — all excited her so much, that, fatigued as she was, she never closed her eyes! Each hour she grew more restless, and more desirous to compose herself and gain strength for the next night.
But when evening returned, the house filled in vain; in vain the manager bustled, the composer wondered. At length he sent Crowe in a cab to the house he had visited the night before, to bring back the missing star instantly. Crowe returned in half an hour with red eyes, and his pale face paler even than usual.
He had found the poor prima donna lying delirious with fever, now singing a few notes of recitative, now talking wildly about diamond bracelets to feed her children, whilst they sat apart in a little room, where the old servant had placed them, frightened and weeping. Messrs. Smith and Rossi were in despair; they sent able physicians to prescribe for her, they came often to see if she wanted anything.
For six weeks her life was in danger; and when at last she recovered her bodily strength, her voice was grand as before, but her mind appeared shattered for ever. She sang exquisitely, but at random; she could learn nothing new, she could go through with nothing consecutively. Dreadful was the mortification of the manager and his friend; she would rehearse for them some beautiful passage which awakened all their hopes of claiming her once more for their theatre; she would promise to attend rehearsals and resume her labours; but when the hour came, she had forgotten their very existence, and was sitting quietly mending her children’s clothes, and singing melodiously over her work.
O it was too tantalising to see such talent and make no use of it! Rossi began to feel personally aggrieved, and when the doctors talked of the great pressure on her brain, replied angrily, “What the devil did she study so hard for? I’m sure I never urged her; she would have been immeasurably superior to any one else, if she had taken it easy and husbanded her own strength.”
He tried Miss Watkins, and Joan of Arc ceased to please; the house emptied, the speculation failed, and the manager set off for a professional tour in the provinces, resolving never again to establish an English company. But he left behind him his hitherto faithful Crowe, who hung on Smith from the time that he found the musician pretty constant in his attentions to Mrs. Neville: for Smith could not utterly abandon the woman he had admired so warmly — that respect he had felt for her, as she repulsed his suit, by the sight of her sleeping children, continued still, for the virtues which had called it forth were not dimmed like the brightness of her intellect.
What if she did lose the thread of a long conversation, and break forth like a bird into snatches of exquisite melody — she was always the same simple, modest lady, the same tender, loving mother; and though poor Joan of Arc had ended her victories when Maude Percy ceased to represent her, the composer could not forget the delight of that one night of exultation, nor the gentle rebuke which had followed the triumph.
So he often sought out the poor lady and consulted with the old servant on means of supporting her. It ended in his procuring pupils for her, and though they were not a first-rate connection, it proved a living for her children; and the genius who had once stood unrivalled, now uncomplainingly taught the “Sol-fa” to the flaunting daughters of the butcher who supplied her with meat, or cancelled the baker’s bill by teaching his boy who had a “wonderful notion of singing.”
The high-minded woman saw no degradation there, as she had before seen no disgrace in her public position. What cared she, so that her children were honestly provided for? In the blaze of her triumph, as in the dim twilight, her children were all her care — her forsaken children who depended on her alone!
Even in her bitterest trial, the wrong done to them had been the keenest pang the mother had suffered, far more than the wife. One other friend she had; the clergyman of her parish was one of those hard-working men who do wonders with the most limited time and the scantiest purse, and no sooner did he hear of her illness than he found a hundred kindnesses in his power; his was not the religion of the Pharisee, who sees sin in all that differs from his own views, and it never occurred to him, who had never set foot within a playhouse, to reproach the woman who had ventured on the stage for the support of her fatherless family. Had she been a nun in a convent, he would not have deemed her purer.
One morning as Hugo Rossini Smith was rehearsing one of those wonderful gymnastic exercises with which he was wont to charm an enlightened public, Crowe entered the room and stationed himself patiently behind the music-stool, till the maestro having worked himself up to fever-heat turned round and beheld an unwonted look of animation on his usually depressed physiognomy.
“O, sir! I have made such a discovery!”
“Well, sir, I have been talking to Master Neville, and I let out to him that I was sure his mother was a lady born. You know Mr. Rossi always said so, too.”
“Pshaw! That was only his humbug. He wanted to make her more mysterious; he never meant it.”
“Well, sir, if he did not, I do. I have seen ladies in plenty in my better days, and have been caressed and praised by them. She is a lady out and-out, and I knew it the first time I opened the door to her, for all that her dress was so shabby. Well, I told this to the boy, and he coloured up in a proud sort of way. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you are right, but say nothing about it; mamma never will allow us to mention it; her father is Sir John Beauchamp, and he has a beautiful house in London, and one handsomer still in Yorkshire; but mamma says she disobeyed him by marrying, and he has never forgiven her.’ Now, sir, don’t you think if this baronet knew how hard up she has been, through such an illness, he inu.it help his own daughter?”
“If you knew the aristocracy as I do,” replied Smith, with a grand air, “you would be aware that there is no must in the case.”
“Well, sir, but don’t you think one might try? You, for instance, might go and tell them all about her. The boy was sure his mother had had no intercourse with her family for years, so they can’t know what she has suffered.”
The great composer stroked his moustache thoughtfully.
After some meditation, he took up a large red book from the table: “Well, Crowe, tins will give us the address. Here we have it — Sir John Beauchamp, 4, Hampton Place. You know it leads into Eaton Square; call up your scattered wits and endeavour to obtain, quietly, some information regarding the habits of the family — if there is Lady B., children and so on; if they are musical, intellectual, fashionable, charitable, or what? If you can sound the key-note for me to-night, I will play the overture to-morrow.”
The youth was departing forthwith.
“Stay, Crowe, I declare you look quite radiant; what -is it that fascinates you so entirely in poor Mrs. Neville, and thus rouses all your faculties?”
The boy coloured.
“Well, I don’t know; she is so unlike the other women I have had to do with; so kind and yet so above me; and then her voice is so lovely!”
Poor Crowe, that voice of hers was his reward for everything! Smith felt much the same towards her, but in a less degree; he was too much taken up with himself to be capable of genuine enthusiasm.
The musician and his secretary did not meet again till the former returned from the musical soiree where he had been acting the lion greatly to his own satisfaction, as usual. Crowe followed him at once to his room:
“I have not learnt much, they are very shut-up people it seems; could hear nothing about Sir John, but there is a Lady Beauchamp much younger than the baronet, and no children. I can’t hear that they do anything but go to chapel, or see anybody.”
“They shall see Me to-morrow!” returned Smith, looking at himself in the glass with a thorough consciousness that that vision would by no means rank as a common event in their lives. As soon as he had breakfasted — that is about noon the next day — Hugo Rossini Smith applied for admittance at 4, Hampton Place.
“Sir John sees no one,” replied the servant, “but I believe my lady is at home,” with a stress on the believe called forth, not by doubts as to his mistress’s presence, but as to the respectability of the very dirty and extraordinary-looking visitor.
However, he was shown into Lady Beauchamp’s drawing-room, where he prepared for her reception. He threw himself in a lounging attitude on the sofa, pulled his neck-tie into a knot still more neglige, fixed his eyes on the ceiling, and drew his fingers through his lanky locks, till the wildness of his appearance was beyond measure ludicrous.
Some minutes passed, and Smith grew tired of posing, and curiosity strongly prompted him to look round the room. The furniture was costly, but it was not refined; the walls were covered with a few good oil-paintings interspersed with very poor lithographic representations of the Rev. Josiah Pitchitin; the Rev. Josiah Pitchitin’s chapel at Kennington; the Rev. Samuel Wheedler, evening lecturer at the Old Road Tabernacle, and other worthies of various features, save in one respect, that they had all heavy fleshy mouths and chins, and very much the tournure of shoemakers in their Sunday clothes, who would appreciate a good dinner with more than even the ordinary gusto of mankind.
He looked at the books on the table, all beautifully gilt and bound — presentation copy of the “Saint’s Feast;” the “Aroma of Piety,” presented with the utmost respect to Lady Beauchamp by Josiah Pitchitin; “Illustrated Hymns used at Salem Chapel.” Smith felt dreadfully out of his element, and turned despairingly to the card-basket; but just as he had taken up the first visiting-card, he became miserably conscious of the presence of a tall, frigid, grandly dressed lady, who stood just within the door watching him with stony glance. O most provoking chance! he had looked, he knew he had, so distingue” in his reverie on the sofa; and, after all, to be detected prying with mundane curiosity into the card-basket. He recovered himself as he could.
“Have I the honour of addressing Lady Beauchamp?” — a very slight inclination of the head — “and can her ladyship spare a quarter of an hour to an artist who has for once travelled out of his sphere to restore a brilliant star to hers?”
The lady seated herself, motioned him to a chair, and placing her jewelled watch on the table, “I have, sir,” she said, “exactly ten minutes to give you; state your case as concisely as you can.”
“My dearest lady! it is not my cause, but that of one much nearer to you.”
.. A slight anxious flush rose to the lady’s cheek, but she waited patiently for the end.
“You may have heard of me, madam; I am Hugo Rossini Smith, the composer of Joan of Arc, an opera which will yet claim immortality, though at present cruelly obscured. You may have witnessed its brilliant debut.”
The lady drew herself up with an air of mingled surprise and disdain, which said plainer than words could have done: I know nought of such wicked places.
Smith pursued his tale — “The heroine was represented by the most wonderful singer, a genius, a heaven-inspired creature, but for one night only; the excitement of that first performance was too much for her; it produced brain-fever, which has impaired her intellect; yet thus weakened, she is the sole support of her children, for her husband has forsaken her. I must not omit to state, that I am taking this step entirely without her knowledge.”
“And why apply to me in favour of this abandoned woman?”
”Abandoned! Good heavens, banish such an idea, she is an angel! a divine creature! pure, lovely! But why I appeal to you, or rather to your husband is, because this unfortunate and most-gifted lady is, I have just ascertained, the daughter of Sir John Beauchamp!”
The lady’s face whitened, and her teeth clenched; it was a deadly look of hatred that distorted those features, which she strove evidently to conceal.
“Sir!” she hissed out at length, through her closed teeth, ”go back to that vile woman, and tell her to pursue her infamous course as she has hitherto done — silently.”
“For heaven’s sake, madam I consider, this virtuous lady is deeply afflicted — she —.”
“Then, sir,” interrupted Lady Beauchamp, “tell her to regard her visitation as the justice of Heaven, and may the punishment work repentance in her. I can hold no communication with a stage player, and her poor father is in no condition to attend to business. I doubt not but that she is well provided with friends of her own stamp, or you, sir, would not now be here begging for her. I have now listened to you for more than ten minutes; allow me to bid you good morning.”
Several times during the interview, Smith had noticed a slight movement of the door behind the chair of Lady Beauchamp, and as he mentioned the name of the successful singer, he had distinctly seen the outline of an old man’s head start forward, and as quickly retire.
He had from that time raised his voice under the impression that it might be Sir John. As he slowly left the room at the command of the imperious lady, he glanced about in hopes of seeing the supposed father, but nought was visible, save a black sheep stealing softly up the stair-case, whom he rightly guessed to be the Rev. Josiah Pitchitin.
Even when the smart footman had closed the door on him, he lingered on the steps, hoping he would be followed and recalled by the old shadow, who must have heard his conversation with his wife. Yet no he might be deaf — he might be imbecile — he might be as merciless as his partner. He was obliged to acknowledge to the eagerly-expectant Crowe, the entire failure of his mission. He did not communicate his doubts to Crowe, but in his own mind he attributed much of his ill-success to his own impatience in having prematurely abandoned his poetic attitude on the sofa, which could not but impress ever so hardened a woman.
However, he did not long brood over his misadventure, but sought and found consolation by strolling off to some of his usual haunts. Not so poor Crowe; he felt the disappointment keenly. He remained at the musician’s desk, copying the musical task allotted to him, but the pen often dropped from his fingers, and the pale face had even a deeper air of dejection than usual, as it looked up occasionally from the confusion of heads and tails which represented one of Smith’s fantasias.
Suddenly a slight tap at the door startled him; it opened cautiously, and there walked in a large bundle of clothing, which shelled gradually — cloak, paleto, overcoat, shawl, whilst a voice from within explained in a weak voice, “Excuse me, sir, I begged the servant not to announce me, so much prudence is necessary in my peculiar position. I overheard you this morning telling my — but dear me! I’ve made some mistake, you are surely not the same gentleman. Can your name be Smith?”
Meanwhile Crowe’s eyes were brightening as the process of unmuffling revealed the figure of a feeble old gentleman in his dinner-dress; and in reply to the visitor’s question, he put another.
“Are you not Sir John Beauchamp?”
“I am. How can you know me?”
“Oh, sir, do not be alarmed, you may safely trust me; though only the humble secretary of the musician Smith, whom you this morning saw, it was at my suggestion that he visited your house. I know Mrs. Neville, and it was to me that her artless boy revealed her relationship to you.”
“Her boy! Then her son still lives?”
“Lives? yes, indeed, he is full of life! a fine healthy fellow of ten years old.”
“Yes, ten years — ten long years! And he is a beautiful boy, is he? Alas! and I have no heir — no child!”
“He is a princely fellow, sir, worthy to inherit a dukedom.”
“And the mother? Was all that true about her? Did I hear aright? Driven to the stage by poverty? Ill, her mind affected? Can my daughter have suffered so much, and I in ignorance of it?”
“Come and judge for yourself. I will take you to her this very hour, if you will. Your presence might cure her: who knows?”
“But is not her husband there?” asked the old man, slowly, as if each word cost him a pang of pain. “I cannot see him; I cannot, indeed — the brute!”
“You will not. I know nothing of him; but he is never there. He went to Australia years ago. They suppose he must be dead, I believe. But Mrs. Neville — come to her, so sweet a lady! and such a voice! Shall we go at once?”
“I dare not, to-night; there is not time; Lady Beauchamp returns at nine, and she must know nothing. But to-morrow I will. Tell me, can she recognise people? Will she know me? Is she sensible?”
“Oh yes: her memory fails, her mind wanders at times, and she can attend to nothing for long, but she is quite sensible, and she sings more exquisitely than ever. Why, even now, she supports her three children by teaching — by teaching butchers, bakers, grocers. It is a shame! a burning shame!”
The old man could not speak; his head drooped on his breast, and the tears shone on his black coat.
“I must return now,” he said, with a start; “but to-morrow, O, good young man! lead me to her to-morrow. Come to my house: I will thank you — reward you! Wait near my house to-morrow evening at seven; you will see her start for chapel (Lady Beauchamp, I mean). When you see the carriage drive off, come within the shadow of the portico, and I will join you instantly. Will you promise?”
“Most willingly. I will not fail!”
The old man hurriedly resumed all the garments which greatly disguised him, and almost ran away. Crowe heard the sound of cab-wheels driving rapidly away, and prayed that the old gentleman might regain his home before the wife he so evidently dreaded.
He endeavoured to resume his task, but it was harder than ever now: he blackened the heads of his minims, gave double tails to his quavers, and the whole manuscript became such a mass of hopeless confusion, that when Smith returned, with his accustomed used-up air, he exclaimed, “Why, you’ve been writing in your sleep, Crowe!”
“No, sir; but he has been here.” And then followed a long account of the interview.
Smith was somewhat jealous that he had had only the unsuccessful part of the interference, whilst Crowe seemed likely to bring it to a fair issue; but his natural idleness consoled him by the thought that he would at least have no further trouble.
CHAPTER IV. HOPE ONCE MORE.
Smith and Crowe were still discussing the various details of the poor prima donna’s story, when another sharp rap at the door was heard simultaneously with a well-known voice.
“I say, Smith, old boy, can you give a fellow a night’s lodging? They can’t take me in till the morning at my old den in Charles Street.”
There was no mistaking the short portly form which rolled in, draped in a handsome travelling cloak, and Turkish cap with immense tassel: — none of your common straw hats or felt wide awakes for the elegant Giacomo Rossi.
“You are welcome, Rossi. Where do you spring from?”
“From Dublin, last, and you shall taste the only good thing that country produces.”
And he drew from his pocket a silver-mounted travelling-flask full of whiskey.
“No; no supper, Smith, thank you; have not yet digested my dinner; just a biscuit and a taste of the cratur! That’s right, Crowe, hand the glasses. Bless me, Crowe, how fast you look. I declare you grow quite handsome. There, taste that, Smith.”
“Excellent! and as soft as milk.”
It may have been very mild, but certainly the appearance of the gentlemen’s eyes would not have led you to imagine that milk was the beverage they had been quaffing. Of course the manager was not long before he made inquiries concerning his lost prima-donna, and great was the interest he evinced in the story they related to him. But when the name of Beauchamp was pronounced, he started, turned suddenly thoughtful, and listened with still greater attention.
“Crowe,” he said at last, “have you seen this Lady Beauchamp!”
” Well, I will accompany you when you go on your errand. I have rather a fancy to see her, and shall watch as she steps into her carriage, without interfering, of course, with you and the old fool. So she is shamming piety, is she? Humph! I think I see my way through this business, but what a double distilled ass Sir John Beauchamp must be!”
Punctually at the appointed hour Rossi and Crowe walked to Hampton Street, where they separated. The carriage — a very gaudy concern, quite new — drove up to the door, the footman handed in some prayer-books, and as he loudly shouted to the coachman, “Salem Chapel!” Rossi passed, as if accidentally, and had a good view of the lady within. Meanwhile Crowe came as directed, and concealed himself in the shadow of the portico, where he was almost instantly joined by a man from within the house.
“All right, sir?”
“Yes, thank you for coming so punctually. We will take a cab at the corner of the street.”
But as they were crossing to the stand the baronet’s own carriage came wheeling swiftly back with his wife within. The old man stood as if paralysed. The wheel struck him and he fell heavily to the ground. Crowe and Rossi helped him up; he was sensible, but unable to move.
“I much fear my leg is broken,” he muttered, groaning with pain.
Rossi lifted up his body, Crowe gently took the legs, and they carried him back to his own house. There was clearly no other course to take. Through the hall they passed (for the door was open and the carriage still waiting), followed by the astonished footman.
They laid his master on the first sofa they met with, and ordered the servant to run quickly for the family surgeon. He disappeared, and Lady Beauchamp, who had merely returned for her purse, entered the room. She looked with little emotion at her injured husband, but when she caught sight of Crowe kneeling beside him her face changed fearfully; her eyes dilated; her lips quivered; her colour fled; it was not surprise only — not fear, but a host of conflicting passions which held her mute; trembling, unable to withdraw her eyes from Crowe, who, poor fellow, shrank from her gaze and hid his face in both hands.
Rossi, who watched acutely the whole group, saw that Sir John’s attention was arrested to the singular expression of his wife’s face, and walked up to the statue-like form and laid his hand firmly on her arm. She turned to him and gave a piercing shriek.
“I have recently, madam,”he said coolly, “been in the company of a gentleman who was looking for you, and who will be delighted to hear you are so comfortably located. I mean your husband.”
“Sir, you must be mistaken,” exclaimed Sir John, somewhat fiercely, “that lady is my wife.”
“That she cannot be, Sir John. I tell you I was only yesterday with her husband; his name is Henry Fisher, alias Baron Ormoffz, alias Count Des Pres; and I myself had the honour of giving away this lady to him in the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris some eighteen years ago, she being then the famous actress, Sophy Vernon. She cannot be your wife, consequently, and will not, I know, deny the truth of my statement, of which abundant proofs exist, as she well knows, including her most respectable spouse in person.”
“But why does she stare so at him?” asked the old man after a long pause, glancing at Crowe.
“Poor fellow,” replied the manager in a low tone, “he is her son; she sold him to me years ago; he had a sweet voice, and I made something of him till he lost it. He is an honest fellow, is Crowe; she has been a brute to him as to every one else. Ah, sir, you are not her only dupe!”
The doctor’s brougham now drove up to the door, a little confusion ensued, in the midst of which Lady Beauchamp, who had remained perfectly silent, disappeared. At his own request Rossi and Crowe helped to move the patient to his bed, and waited till the broken limb was set; but before the doctor had re-entered his brougham, Lady Beauchamp had driven off quietly and unquestioned in her own carriage to the nearest railway station, carrying with her all the jewels and loose cash on which she could lay her hands.
When the old man was subsequently informed of this, he only uttered a deep groan; it may have been grief —it may have been disappointment; it sounded very like a sigh of relief! Ah! what a life he had led since he picked up, at a foreign watering-place, that apparent mirror of virtue and propriety. Poor weak old creature! his property, his actions, his very soul had passed into her hands, and she had acted her part, the most important of all her roles, with a perfection equalled only by the completeness of her depravity.
She had joined a religious sect, and confined herself to the society of a few of its ministers, because she hoped amongst them to escape detection, and yet to command a certain amount of worship and admiration which was necessary to her happiness, but she looked eagerly forward to a day when she should be set at liberty to fly with her ill-gotten, yet hardly-earned, gain to a climate and habits more congenial to her tastes. The sudden appearance of her son and the well-known Rossi was a blow she had never anticipated.
As for poor Crowe, he was so accustomed to that peculiar form of misery, that his shame at this new discovery of his mother’s infamy was soon overpowered by the delight of being sent to bring Mrs. Neville and her children to the bed-side of her father. It was a mission requiring delicacy and tenderness, and all felt none would acquit himself more satisfactorily than Crowe, whose gentle heart supplied the place of tact, talent, quickness — in short of everything in which he was deficient.
His heart throbbed with pleasure as he knocked at the door. She herself opened it; her sweet, peculiar smile lighting up her face and his, as she welcomed him kindly. She led him in and resumed her work, and as Crowe remained silent awhile, she forgot, as she often did, his presence, and began singing a canzonet of Haydn’s, as she diligently plied her needle. Crowe’s eyes filled with tears, her voice always thrilled him so! She saw it, and changed her strain to something lively.
“Yes,” he said, “you may choose a cheerful strain this day. You have had many griefs, Mrs. Neville; but they are drawing to a close; can you bear happiness as you have borne sorrow?”
“Alas! it was the happiness of success which made me so ill; but I think I can bear anything you may have in store for me;” and she smiled, expecting to hear of a new pupil, or something equally exciting.
Crowe hesitated as to his next step, when a new idea struck him.
“I want to take you to your happiness,” he said; “half an hour’s ride will bring you to a great joy.”
She looked towards the children in the little back-garden.”
“Martha will take care of them.”
Still she smiled incredulously.
“But I have so much work to do, and a pupil in the afternoon.”
Crowe was roused into consigning the pupil in question to so fearful a doom, that Mrs. Neville seemed startled into the belief that something must have happened.
“Pray don’t refuse me,” he urged.
“You are so kind, Crowe, that I cannot; but it is rather a wild-goose scheme, is it not?”
”Rely upon me, Mrs. Neville; dear me, am I not sober enough? It may be extraordinary; but it is plain, substantial reality.”
And so they went together. Mrs. Neville in silent wonder; Crowe in equally silent exultation. But her perplexity increased as he led her into Sir John’s house, and up the stairs into the bed-room. The curtains were drawn, she could hardly see the figure in the bed, but there was no doubt as to the voice which spoke:
”My child! my Agnes! can you forgive me for not forgiving you! Come back home to me, never leave me more! I have so longed for you!”
There was no reply, save by sobs and kisses, and soft-hearted Crowe could stand it no longer: he hastened away to fetch the children.
Henceforward, no fears for them. Mrs. Neville herself recovered gradually her former health, now the pressure of cares and anxiety was removed from her mind, but the remembrance of her ONE Night On The Stage influenced her whole life, as many an artist, worn out, or unfortunate, or destitute can testify. And the poor, neglected Crowe found at last a genial, happy home, where still his ears were indulged with the beautiful singing of the “prima donna” of the house.
As for Smith, the fickle public, after pampering him for years, came to the conclusion that the genius was a humbug! He made a vain struggle to keep up his long admitted claim, and then the great composer washed, shaved, and settled down into a respectable though somewhat misanthropical music-master.
Rossi will, I have no doubt, appear before the public next season, as he has done on so many previous occasions, but never since has he made such a hit as on that one night of Maude Percy’s debut.