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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 19
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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 19 Post by :bradbahr Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2138

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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 19


There is a certain kind, or perhaps it is only a certain degree, of theatrical reputation, which makes its coming felt in all sorts of ways, like a change in the weather. The rise of literary men to fame is almost always a surprise to themselves, their families, and their former instructors. Especially the latter, who know much more than the young novelist does, but have never been able to do anything with their knowledge, hold up their shrivelled, or podgy, or gouty old hands in sorrow, declaring that the success of a boy who was such a dolt, such a good-for-nothing, such a conceited jackanapes at school, only shows what the judgment of the public is worth, and how very low its standard has fallen. But the great public does not think much of decayed schoolmasters at best, and is never surprised that a young man should succeed, for the very simple reason that if he did not, some other young man certainly would; and to those who do not know the colour of the author's hair and eyes, the difference between Mr. Brown, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Robinson, in private life, must be purely a matter of imagination.

But theatrical reputation is a different matter, and its rise affects the professional barometer beforehand. The people who train great singers and great actors know what they are about and foresee the result, as no publisher can foresee it with regard to a new writer. There is a right way and a wrong way of singing, one must sing in tune unless one sings out of tune, there are standards of comparison in the persons of the great singers who are still at their best. It is not easy to be mistaken, where so much is a matter of certainty and so little depends on chance, and the facts become known very easily. The first-rate second-rate artists, climbing laboriously in the wake of the real first-rates, and wishing that these would die and get out of the way, feel a hopeless sinking at the heart as they hear behind them the rush of another coming genius. The tired critics sleep less soundly in the front row of the stalls, the fine and frivolous ladies who come to the opera to talk the whole evening are told that for once they will have to be silent, the reporters put on little playful airs of mystery to say that they have been allowed to assist at a marvellous rehearsal or have been admitted to see the future diva putting on her cloak after a final interview with Schreiermeyer, whose attitude before her is described as being that of the donor of the picture in an old Italian altar-piece.

And all this is not mere advertisement; much of it is, in fact, nothing of the sort, and is not even suggested by Schreiermeyer, for he knows perfectly well that one performance will place his new star very nearly at her true value before the public, who will flock to hear her and take infinite pains to find out where and when she is going to sing the next time. It is just the outward, healthy stir that goes before certain kinds of theatrical success, and which is quite impossible where most other arts are concerned; perhaps--I suggest it with apologies to all living prima donnas and first tenors--the higher the art, the less can success be predicted. Was ever a great painter, a great sculptor or a great poet 'announced'? On the other hand, was there ever a great singer who was not appreciated till after death?

The public probably did not hear the name of Margaret Donne till much later, and then, with considerable indifference, but long before Margarita da Cordova made her _debut_, her name was repeated, with more or less mistakes and eccentricities of pronunciation, from mouth to mouth, in London and Paris, and was even mentioned in St. Petersburg, Berlin and New York. Every one connected with the musical world, even if only as a regular spectator, felt that something extraordinary was coming.

Madame Bonanni wrote to Margaret that she wished to see her, and would come over to Paris expressly, if Margaret would only telegraph. She would come out to Versailles, she would make the acquaintance of that charming Mrs. Rushmore. Margaret wondered what would happen if the two women met, and what mutual effect they would produce upon each other, but her knowledge of Mrs. Rushmore made her doubt whether such a meeting were desirable. Instead of telegraphing to Madame Bonanni, she wrote her answer, proposing to go to the prima donna's house. But Madame Bonanni was impatient, and as no telegram came when she expected one, she did not wait for a possible letter. To Margaret's dismay and stupefaction, she appeared at Versailles about luncheon time, arrayed with less good taste than the lilies of the field, but yet in a manner to outdo Solomon in all his glory, and she was conveyed in a perfectly new motor car. When Margaret, looking on from beyond the pond, saw her descend from the machine, she could not help thinking of a dreadful fresco she had once seen on the ceiling of an Italian villa, representing a very florid, double-chinned, powerful eighteenth-century Juno apparently in the act of getting down into the room from her car, to the great inconvenience of every one below.

The English servant who opened the door was in distress of mind when he saw her, for since he had served in Mrs. Rushmore's very proper household he had never seen anything like Madame Bonanni as she stood there asking for Miss Donne, and evidently not in a mood to be patient. He was very much inclined to tell her that she had mistaken the house, and to shut the door in her face. There were people coming to luncheon, and it was just possible that she might be one of them; but if she was not, and if the others came and found such a person there, how truly awful it would be! Thus the footman reflected as he stood in the doorway, listening to Madame Bonanni's voluble French speech.

As she paused for a moment, he heard some one on the stairs. It was Mrs. Rushmore herself. He recognised her step and turned sharp round on his heels, still filling the door but exposing his broad back to the visitor.

'Very odd person asking to see Miss Donne, ma'am,' he said in low and hurried tones. 'Shall I say "not at home," ma'am?'

'By all means "not at home," James,' said Mrs. Rushmore.

James had not miscalculated his breadth, as to the door, but his height as compared with that of the odd person outside. She put her head over his shoulder and looked in at Mrs. Rushmore.

'May I please come in?' she asked in comprehensible English. 'I am Bonanni, the singer, and I want to see Miss Donne. I've come from London to--please? Yes?'

'Goodness gracious!' cried Mrs. Rushmore. 'Let the lady in at once, James!'

James disappeared, somehow, and the artist came into the darkened hall, and met Mrs. Rushmore.

The latter did not often meet a woman much bigger than herself, and actually felt small when she held out her hand. Madame Bonanni seemed to fill the little hall of the French cottage, and Mrs. Rushmore felt as if she were in danger of being turned out of it to make room.

'Margaret is in the garden,' she said. 'I am so pleased to meet you, Madame Bonanni! I hope you'll stay to lunch. Do come in, and I'll send for her. James!'

All this was said while the two large hands were mildly shaking one another; Mrs. Rushmore was not easily startled by the sudden appearance of lions--or lionesses--and was conscious of being tolerably consecutive in her speech. It was not Madame Bonanni's greatness that had taken her by surprise, but her size and momentum. The prima donna answered in French.

'You understand? Of course! Thank you! Then I will speak in my own language. I will go out to Miss Donne, if you permit. Luncheon? Ah, if I could! But I have just eaten. I am sure you have so many good things! Little Miss Donne--ah! here she is!'

At this point Margaret came in, pulling off the old garden hat she had worn when Lushington had come to see her. She was surprised that the prima donna did not throw her arms round her and kiss her, but the artist had judged Mrs. Rushmore in a flash and behaved with almost English gravity as she took Margaret's hand.

'I have come to Paris expressly to see you,' she said.

'Let me introduce you to Mrs. Rushmore,' said Margaret.

'It is done,' said Madame Bonanni, making a little stage courtesy at the elder woman. 'I broke into the house like a burglar, and found a charming hostess waiting to arrest me with the kindest invitation to luncheon!'

'What a delightful way of putting it!' cried Mrs. Rushmore, much pleased.

Margaret felt that Madame Bonanni was showing a side of her nature which she had not yet seen. It had never occurred to the girl that the singer could make pretty society speeches. But Madame Bonanni had seen many things in her time.

Margaret carried her off to her own room, after a few words more, for it was clear that her visitor had something private to say, and had come all the way from London to say it, apparently out of pure friendship. Her manner changed again when they were alone. By force of habit the big woman sat down on the piano-stool and turned over the music that was open on the instrument, and she seemed to pay no heed to what Margaret said. Margaret was thanking her for her visit, arranging the blinds, asking her if there was enough air, for the day was hot, inquiring about the weather in London, moving about the room with each little speech, and with the evident desire to start the conversation so as to find out why Madame Bonanni had come. But the singer turned over the pages obstinately, looked up rather coldly at Margaret now and then, and once or twice whistled a few bars of _Rigoletto in a way that would have been decidedly rude, had it not been perfectly clear that she did not know what she was doing, and was really trying to make up her mind how to begin. Margaret understood, and presently let her alone, and just sat down on a chair at the corner of the piano with a bit of work, and waited to see what would happen.

'I thought it might help you a little if I ran through the opera with you,' said Madame Bonanni, after a long time. 'I have sung it very often.'

But as she spoke she shut the score on the piano rather sharply, as if she had changed her mind. Margaret looked up quickly in surprise and dropped her work in her lap.

'You did not come all the way from London for that?' she asked, in a voice full of gratitude and wonder.

There was a moment's pause, during which the singer looked uneasy.

'No,' she said, 'I didn't. I never could lie very well--I can't at all to-day! But I would have come, only for that, if I had thought you needed it. That is the truth.'

'How good you are!' Margaret cried.


The singer's hand covered her big eyes for a moment and her elbow rested on the edge of the piano desk. There was a very sad note in the single word she had spoken, a note of despair not far off; but Margaret did not understand.

'What is the matter?' she asked, leaning forward, and laying one hand gently on Madame Bonanni's wrist. 'Why do you speak like that?'

'Do you think you would have been any better, in my place?'

The question came in a harsh tone, suddenly, as if it broke through some opposing medium, the hand dropped from the brow, and the big dark eyes gazed into Margaret's almost fiercely. Still the girl did not understand.

'Better? I? In what way? Tell me what it is, if something is distressing you. Let me help you, if I can. You know I will, with all my heart.'

'Yes, I know.' Madame Bonanni's voice sank again. 'But how can you? The trouble is older than you are. There is one thing--yes--there is one thing, if you could say it truly! It would help me a little if you could say it--and yet--no--I'm not sure--if you did, it would only show that you have more heart than he has.'

'Who?' Margaret vaguely guessed the truth.

'Who? Tom--my son! "Edmund Lushington," who feels that he cannot ask a respectable girl to marry him because his mother has been a wicked woman.'

The big woman shook from head to foot as she spoke.

Margaret was pained and her fingers tightened nervously on the other's wrist.

'Oh, please don't!' she cried. 'Please don't!'

'He's right,' answered Madame Bonanni, hanging her large head and shaking it despairingly. 'Of course, he's right, and it's true! But, oh!--she looked up again, suddenly--'oh, how much more right it must be for a man to forgive his mother, no matter what she has done!'

Margaret's fingers glided from the wrist they held, to the large hand, and pressed it sympathetically, but she could not find anything to say which would do. The friendly pressure, however, evidently meant enough to the distressed woman.

'Thank you, dear,' she said gratefully. 'You re very good to me. I know you mean it, too. Only, you re not placed as he is. If you were my daughter, you would think as he thinks--you would not live under my roof! Perhaps you would not even see me when we met in the street! You would look the other way!'

Margaret could not have told, for her life, what she would have done, but she was far too kind-hearted not to protest.

'Indeed I wouldn't!' she cried, with so much energy that Madame Bonanni believed her.

'No matter what I had done?' asked she pathetically eager for the assurance.

'You'd have been my mother just the same,' answered Margaret softly.

As the girl spoke, she felt a little sharp revolt in her heart against what she had said, at the mere thought of associating the word 'mother' with Madame Bonanni.

There was nothing at all psychological in that, and it would hardly bear analysing even by a professional dissector of character. It was just the natural feeling, in a natural girl, whose mother had been honest and good. But Madame Bonanni only heard the kind words.

'Yes,' she answered, 'I should have been your mother, just the same. But I couldn't have been a better mother to you than I've been to Tom. I couldn't, indeed!'

'No,' Margaret said, in the same gentle tone as before, 'you've been very good to him.'

'Yes! I have! He knows it, and he does not deny it!' Madame Bonanni suddenly sat up quite straight and squeezed Margaret's hands by way of emphasis. 'But he does not care,' she went on, her anger rising a little. 'Not he! He would rather that I should have been any sort of miserable little proper middle-class woman, if I could only have been technically "virtuous"! If I had been that, I might have beaten him to an omelette every day when he was a boy, and tormented him like a gadfly when he was a man! He would have preferred it--oh, by far! That is the logic of men, my dear, their irrefutable logic that they are always talking about and facing us down with! The miserable little animal! I will give up loving him, I will hate him, as he deserves, I will tell him to go to Peru, where he will never see his wicked old mother again! Then he will be sorry, he will wish he were dead, but I shall not go to him, never, never, never!'

She spoke the last words with tremendous energy, and a low echo of her voice came back out of the open piano from the strings. She clenched her fist and shook it at an imaginary Lushington in space, and for a moment her face wore a look of Medean menace.

Margaret might have smiled, if she had not felt that the strange creature was really and truly suffering, in her own way, to the borders of distraction. Then, suddenly, the great frame was convulsed again and quivered from head to foot.

'I'm going to cry,' she announced, in rather shaky tones.

And she cried. She slipped from the piano-stool to the floor, upon her knees, and her heavy arms fell upon the keys with a crashing discord, and her face buried itself in the large depths of one bent elbow, quite regardless of damage to Paquin's masterpiece of a summer sleeve; and with huge sobs the tears welled up and overflowed, taking everything they found in their way, including paint, and washing all down between the ivory keys of Margaret's piano.

Margaret saw that there was nothing to be done. At first she tried to soothe her as best she could, standing over her, and laying a hand gently on her shoulder; but Madame Bonanni shook it off with a sort of convulsive shudder, as a big carthorse gets rid of a fly that has settled on a part of his back inaccessible to his tail. Then Margaret desisted, knowing that the fit must go on to its natural end, and that it was hopeless to try and stop it sooner. Women are very practical with each other in crying matters, but it is bad for us men if we treat them in the same sensible way under the identical circumstances. Margaret sat down again in her chair, and instead of taking up her work, she leaned forward towards the weeping woman, to be ready with a word of sympathy as soon as it could be of any use. She watched the heavy head, the strong and coarse dark hair, the large animal construction of the neck and shoulders, the massive hands, discoloured now with straining upon themselves; nothing escaped her, as she quietly waited for the sobbing to cease; and though she felt the peasant nature there, close to her, in all its rugged strength, yet she felt, too, that with certain differences of outward refinement, it was not unlike her own. Her own hair, for instance, was much finer; but then, fair hair is generally finer than dark. Her own hands were smaller than Madame Bonanni's; but then, they had never been used to manual labour when she had been a girl. And as for the rest of her, she knew that Madame Bonanni had been reckoned a beauty in her day, such a beauty that very great and even royal personages indeed had done extremely foolish things to please her; and that very beauty had been in part the cause of those very tears the poor woman was shedding now. Margaret was quite sensible enough to admit that she herself, after a quarter of a century of stage life, might turn into very much the same type of woman. While waiting to be sympathetic at the right moment, therefore, she studied Madame Bonanni's appearance with profound and melancholy interest. She had never had such a good chance.

The convulsive sobbing grew regular, then more slow, then merely intermittent, and then it stopped altogether. But before she lifted her face from the hollow of her elbow, Madame Bonanni felt about for something with her other hand; and Margaret, being a woman, knew that she wanted her handkerchief before showing her face, and picked it up and gave it to her. A man would probably have taken the groping fingers and pressed them, or kissed them, probably supposing that to be what was wanted, and thereby much retarding the progress of events.

Madame Bonanni pushed up the handkerchief between her face and her elbow and moved it about, with a vague idea of equalising her colour in one general tint, then blew her nose, and then sprang to her feet at once, with that wonderful elasticity which was always so surprising in her sudden movements. Moreover, she got up turning her face away from Margaret, and made for the nearest mirror.

'Lord!' she exclaimed, laconically, as she looked at herself and realised the full extent of the damage done.

'Wouldn't you like to wash your face?' asked Margaret, following her at a discreet distance.

'My dear,' answered Madame Bonanni, in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, 'it's awful, of course, but there's nothing else to be done!'

'Come into my dressing-room.'

'If I were at home, I should take a bath and dress over a--a--a----' One last most unexpected sob half choked her and then made her cough, till she stamped her foot with anger.

'Bah!' she cried with contempt when she got her breath. 'If I had often made myself look like such a monster, I should have been a perfectly good woman! The men would have run from me like mice from a barn on fire! Have you got any of that Vienna liquid soap, my dear!'

Margaret had the liquid soap, as it chanced, and in a few moments she was busily occupied in helping Madame Bonanni to restore her appearance. Though long, the process was only partially successful, from the latter's own point of view. Having washed away all that had been, she produced a gold box from the bag she wore at her side. The box was divided into three compartments containing respectively rouge, white powder and a miniature puff for applying both, which she proceeded to do abundantly, sitting at Margaret's toilet-table and talking while she worked. She had made more confusion in the small dressing-room in five minutes than Margaret could have made in dressing twice over. Paint-stained towels strewed the floor, chairs were upset, soap and water was splashed everywhere. Now she started afresh, by rubbing plentiful daubs of rouge into her dark cheeks.

'But why do you put on so much?' Margaret asked in wonder.

'My dear, I'm an actress,' said Madame Bonanni. 'I'm not ashamed of my profession! If I didn't paint, people would say I was trying to pass myself off for a lady! Besides, now that I have cried, nothing but powder will hide it. Look at my nose, my dear--just look at my nose! Little Miss Donne'--she turned upon Margaret with sudden, tragic energy--'don't ever let that wretched boy know that I cried about him! Eh? Never! Promise you won't!'

'No, indeed! You may trust me. Why should I tell?'

'But it doesn't matter. Tell him if you like. I don't care. My life is over now, and there is no reason why I should care about anything, is there?'

'What do you mean by saying that your life is over?' Margaret asked.

Madame Bonanni's head fell upon the edge of the table and she looked at herself in the glass for some moments before she answered.

'I have left the stage,' she said, very quietly.

'Left the stage? For good?' Margaret was amazed.

'Yes. I was not going to have any farewells or last appearances. Those things are only done to make money. Schreiermeyer was very nice about it. He agreed to cancel the rest of my engagements in a friendly way.'

'But why? Why have you done it?' asked Margaret, still bewildered by the news.

Madame Bonanni had done one cheek and half the other. She leaned back in the comfortable chair before the glass and looked at herself again, not at all at the effect of her work, but at her eyes, as if she were searching for something.

'There is not room for you and me,' she said, presently.

'I don't understand,' Margaret answered. 'Not room? Where?'

'On the stage. I have been the great lyric soprano a long time. Next month you will be the great lyric soprano--there is not room----'

'Nonsense!' Margaret broke in. 'I shall never be what you are----'

'Not what I was, perhaps, because this is another age. Taste and teaching and the art itself--all have changed. But you are young, fresh, untouched, unheard--all, you have it all, as I had once. You are not the artist I am, but you will be one day, and meanwhile you have all I have no more. If I had stayed on the stage, we should have been rivals next season. They would have said: "Cordova has a better voice, but Bonanni is still the greater artist." Do you see?'

'Yes. And why should you not be pleased at that?' asked Margaret. 'Or why should not I be quite satisfied, and more than satisfied?'

'I wasn't thinking of us,' said Madame Bonanni, looking up to Margaret's face with an expression that was almost beautiful, in spite of the daubs of paint and the disarranged hair. 'I was thinking of him.'

Margaret began to guess, and her lip quivered a moment, for she was touched.

'Yes,' she said. 'I think I see.'

'He loves you,' said Madame Bonanni, still looking at her. 'I have guessed it. It is very hard for me to get him to like me a little, and he would not forgive me if the really good critics said I was a better artist than you. That would be one thing more against me, my dear, and he has so many things against me already! So I have given it up. Why should I go on singing, now? He does not care any more. When he has once heard you he will never want to come again and sit in the middle of the theatre all alone in the audience just to hear me, as he often did. Then I sang my best. I never sang as I have sung for him, when I have caught sight of his face in the audience. No, not for kings. I used to go and look through the curtain before it went up, if I thought he was there. And it was just to hear me that he came, just for the artistic pleasure! He never came to my dressing-room, for that destroyed the illusion. But now he will go and hear you, and it would make him very bitter against me if any one said I sang better. Do you understand?'

'Yes. I understand.'

Margaret bent her head a little and looked down, wondering and puzzled, yet believing.

'At least I can do that for him.' Madame Bonanni sighed, looking into the glass again. 'I cannot undo my life, but I need not seem to him to be a hindrance in yours.'

It was impossible to receive such a confidence without being deeply touched, and Margaret's own voice shook a little as she answered.

'There have not been many mothers like you since the world began,' she said.

'I will tell you!' The singer turned half round in her chair with one of her sudden movements. 'If I had known that I was going to be so fond of him--and oh, my dear, if I could have guessed that he would care so much!--I would have led a different life! I would have left the stage if I could not. Oh, don't think it is so easy to be good! But it's possible! One can--one could, if one only knew--for the sake of some one whom one loves very dearly!'

'Of course it is!' answered Margaret, with all the heavenly self-confidence of untried virtue.

Madame Bonanni looked at her with a peculiar expression. There was a little pity in the look, and great doubt, a shade of amusement, perhaps, and a great longing envy through it all.

'Of course?' she repeated, in a thoughtful way. 'Did you mean "of course it is possible--and easy," my dear? The tone of your voice made me think that was what you meant. Yes--you meant that, and you have a right to mean it, but you don't know. That's the great difference--you don't know! You haven't begun as I did. You're a lady, a real lady, brought up amongst ladies from your childhood. But that's not what will keep you good! It's not your refinement, nor your good manners, nor your white hands that never milked a cow, or swept a stable, or hoed the weeds out from between the vines in summer. That was my work till I was seventeen. And my mother was a good woman, my dear, just as good as yours, though she was only a peasant of Provence. How do I know it? If she had not been good, my father would have killed her, of course. That was our custom. And he was good, in his way, too, and kind. He always told me that if I went wrong he would shoot me--and when the English artist came and lodged in our house for the summer and made love to me, my father explained everything to him also. So poor Goodyear saw that he must marry me, and we were married, before I was eighteen. He took me away to Paris, and tried to make a lady of me, and he had me taught to sing, because he loved my voice. Do you see? That was how it all happened--and still I was good, as good as you are! Yes--"of course," as you say! It was easy enough!'

'He died young, didn't he?' Margaret asked quietly.

She had seated herself on the corner of the toilet-table to listen, while Madame Bonanni leaned back in the low chair and looked at herself, sometimes absently, some times with pity.

'Yes,' she answered. 'He died very soon and left me nothing but Tommy and my voice. Poor Goodyear! He painted very badly, he never sold anything, and his father starved him because he had married me. It was far better that he should die of pneumonia than of hunger, for that would certainly have been the end of it.

'And you went on the stage at once?' Margaret asked, wishing to hear more.

Madame Bonanni shrugged her shoulders and leaned forward to the looking-glass.

'I had a fortune in my throat,' she said, daubing rouge on the cheek that was only half done. 'I had been well taught in those years, and there were plenty of managers only too anxious to offer me their protection--managers and other people, too. What could I do?'

She shrugged her shoulders again, and laughed a little harshly as she gave a half-shy glance at Margaret. The latter was not a child, but a grown woman of two-and-twenty. She answered gravely.

'With your voice and talent, I don't see why you needed any protection, as you call it.'

Madame Bonanni laughed again.

'No? You don't see? All the better, little Miss Donne, all the better for you that you have never been made to see, and perhaps you never will now. I hope not. But I tell you that in Paris, or in London, or Berlin, or Petersburg you may have the voice and talent of Malibran, Grisi and Patti all in one, but if you are not "protected" you will never get any further than leading chorus-girl, and perhaps not so far!'

'No one has protected me,' said Margaret, 'and I've got a good engagement.'

The prima donna stared at her for a moment in surprise, and then went on making up her face. The girl had talent, genius, perhaps, but she must be oddly simple if she did not realise that she owed her engagement altogether to the woman who was talking to her. Was Margaret going to take that position from the first? Madame Bonanni wondered. Was she going to deliberately ignore that she had been taken up bodily, as it were, and carried through the short cut to celebrity? Or was it just the simple, stupid, innocent vanity that so often goes with great gifts, making their possessors quite sure that they can never owe the least part of their success to any help received from any one else? Whatever it might be, Madame Bonanni was not the woman to remind Margaret of what had happened. She only smiled a little and put on more powder.

'I'm not defending my life, my dear,' she said, quietly, after a little pause. 'Of what use would that be, now that the best part of it is over--or the worst part? I'm not even asking for your sympathy, am I?' Her voice was suddenly bitter. 'I only care for one human being in the world--I think I never cared for any other, since he was born! Does that make my life worse? It does, doesn't it? In the name of heaven, child,' she broke out fiercely and angrily, without the least warning, 'was no woman ever flattered into playing at love? Not even by a King? Am I the only living woman that has been carried off her feet by royalty? It wasn't only the King, of course--I don't pretend it was--there were others. But that's what Tom will never forgive me--the money and the jewels! What could I do? Throw them in his face, scream outraged virtue and cry that he was offending me, when he had nothing more to ask, and I was half drunk with pride and vanity and amusement, because he was really in love? Tell some great lady, your duchess, your princess, to do that sort of thing--if you think she will! Don't ask it of a Provence girl who has milked the cows and hoed the vines, and then suddenly has half Europe at her feet, and a King into the bargain! There was only one thing in the world that could have saved me then--it would have been to know that Tom would never forgive me. And he was only a little boy--how could I guess?'

She looked up almost wildly into Margaret's eyes, and then bent down, resting her forehead upon her hands, on the edge of the table.

'Don't be afraid,' she said, 'I'm not going to cry again--never again, I think! It's over and finished, with the other things!'

She remained in the same position nearly a minute, and then sat up quite straight before the glass, as if nothing had happened, and powdered her cheeks again.

Margaret sat still on the corner of the table, not at all sure of what she had better say or do. She only hoped that Madame Bonanni would not ask her whether she cared for Lushington and would marry him, supposing that his scruples could be overcome, and she had a strong suspicion that it was to ask this that Madame Bonanni had come to see her. It would be rather hard to answer, Margaret knew, and she turned over words and expressions in her mind.

She might have spared herself the trouble, for nothing could have been further from her companion's thoughts just then. The dramatic moment had passed and Margaret had scarcely noticed it, beyond being very much surprised at the news it had brought her of the great singer's retiring from the stage. Perhaps, too, Margaret was a little inclined to doubt whether Madame Bonanni would abide by her resolution in the future, though she was perfectly in earnest at present.

'I shall be at your first night,' said the prima donna, finishing her operations at last, and carefully shutting her little gold box. 'If you have a dress rehearsal, I'll be at that, too.'

'Thank you,' Margaret answered. 'Yes--there is to be a dress rehearsal on Sunday. Schreiermeyer insists on it for me. He's afraid I shall have stage fright because I'm so cool now, I suppose.'

She laughed, contentedly and perfectly sure of herself.

'The only thing I don't like is being brought on in the sack to sing that last scene.'

'Eh?' Madame Bonanni stared in surprise.

'The sack,' Margaret repeated. 'The last scene. Don't you know?'

'I know--but it's always left out. Nobody has sung that for years. It's a chorus-girl who is brought on in the bag, and when Rigoletto sees her face he screams and the curtain goes down. You don't mean to say that Schreiermeyer wants you to do the whole scene?

'Yes. We've rehearsed it ever so often. I thought it was strange, too. He says that if it does not please people at the dress rehearsal, we can leave it out on the real night.'

'I never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life!' Madame Bonanni was evidently displeased.

She had once done the 'sack' scene herself to satisfy the caprice of a foreign sovereign who wished to see the effect of it, and she had a vivid and disagreeable recollection of being half dragged, half carried, inside a brown canvas bag, and then put down rather roughly; and then, of not knowing at what part of the stage she was, while she listened to Rigoletto s voice; and of the strong, dusty smell of the canvas, that choked her, so that she wanted to cough and sneeze when Rigoletto tore open the bag and let her head out; and then, of having to sing in a very uncomfortable position; and, altogether, of a most disagreeable quarter of an hour just at the very time when she should have been getting her wig and paint off in her dressing-room. Moreover, the scene was a failure, as it always has been wherever it has been tried. She told Margaret this.

'At all events,' she concluded, 'you won't have to do it on the real night.'

They were in the larger room again. But for the decided damage done to her sleeve by her tears, Madame Bonanni had restored her outward appearance tolerably well. She stood at the corner of the piano, resting one hand upon it.

'I'm sorry for you, my dear,' she said cheerfully, because I've given you so much trouble, but I'm glad I cried as much as I wanted to. It's horribly bad for the voice and complexion, but nothing really refreshes one so much. I felt as if my heart were going to break when I got here.'

'And now?' Margaret smiled, standing beside the elderly woman and idly turning over the music on the desk of the instrument.

'I suppose it has broken,' Madame Bonanni answered. 'At all events, I don't feel it any more. No--really--I don't! He may go to Peru, if he likes--I hope he will, the ungrateful little beast! I'll never think of him again! When you have made your _debut_, I'm going to live in the country. There's plenty to do there! Bonanni shall milk cows again and hoe the furrows between the vines this summer! Bonanni shall go back to Provence and be an old peasant woman, where she was once a peasant girl, and married the English painter. Do you think I've forgotten the language, or the songs?'

One instant's pause, and the singer's great voice broke out in the small room with a volume of sound so tremendous that it seemed as if it would rend the walls and the ceiling. It was an ancient Provencal song that she sang, in long-drawn cadences with strange falls and wild intervals, the natural music of an ancient, gifted people. It was very short, for she only sang one stanza of it, and in less than a minute it was finished and she was silent again. But her big dark eyes, still swollen and bloodshot, were looking out to a distance far beyond the green trees she saw through the open window.

Margaret, who had listened, repeated the wild melody very softly, and sounded each note of it without the words, as if she wished to remember it always; and a nearer sight came back to the elder woman's eyes as she listened to the true notes that never faltered, and were as pure as sounding silver, and as smooth as velvet and as rich as gold. It was a little thing, but one of those little things that only a born great singer could have done faultlessly at the first attempt; and Madame Bonanni listened with rare delight. Then she laughed, as happily as if she had no heartaches in the world.

'Little Miss Donne, little Miss Donne!' she cried, shaking a fat finger, 'you will turn many heads before long! You shall come to my cottage in the autumn, when we have the vintage, and there you will find old Bonanni looking after the work in a ragged straw hat, with no paint on her cheeks. And in the evening we will sit upon the door-step together, and you shall tell me how the heads turned round and round, and I will teach you all the old songs of Provence. Will you come?'

'Indeed, I will,' Margaret answered, smiling. 'I would cross Europe to see you--you have been so good to me. Do you know? I want you to forgive me for what I said in the dressing-room about my engagement. I remember how you looked when I said it, and now I know that you did not understand. Of course I owe it all to you--but that isn't what you meant by--"protection"?'

The prima donna's expression changed again, and grew hard and almost sullen.

'Never mind that,' she said, roughly. 'I wasn't thinking of that. I didn't notice what you said.'

She turned her back to Margaret, walked to the window and stood there looking out while she put on her gloves. But Margaret was humble, in spite of the rudeness.

'I'm sorry,' she said, following a little way. 'I'm very sorry--I----'

Madame Bonanni did not even turn her head to listen. Margaret did not try to say anything more, but broke off and waited patiently. Then the elder woman turned quickly and fiercely, buttoning the last button of her glove.

'If my own son has done much worse to me, why should I care what any one else can do?' she asked.

But Margaret was obstinate in her humility and would not be put off. She took one of Madame Bonanni's hands and made her look at her.

'I would not say or do anything that could hurt you for all the world,' said Margaret, very earnestly. 'I won't let you go away thinking that I could, and angry with me. Don't you believe me?'

There was no resisting the tone and the look, and Madame Bonanni was not able to be angry long. Her large mouth widened slowly in a bright smile, and the next moment she threw her arms round Margaret and kissed her on both cheeks.

'Bah!' she cried, 'I didn't think I could still be so fond of anybody, since that wretched boy of mine broke my heart! It's ridiculous, but I really believe there's nothing I wouldn't do for you, child!'

She was heartily in earnest, though she little guessed what she was going to do for Margaret within a few days. But Margaret, who was really grateful, was nevertheless glad that there was apparently nothing more that Madame Bonanni could do. She was not quite sure that the great singer's retirement would prove final; and on cool reflection she found it hard to believe that the motive for it was the one the latter alleged, and which had so touched her at first that it had brought tears to her eyes. The Anglo-Saxon woman could not help looking at the Latin woman with a little apprehension and a good deal of scepticism.

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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 20 Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 20

Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 20
CHAPTER XX The stage was set for the introduction to the first act of _Rigoletto_, the curtain was down, the lights were already up in the house and a good many people were in their seats or standing about and chatting quietly. It was a hot afternoon in July, and high up in the gallery the summer sunshine streamed through an open window full upon the blazing lights of the central chandelier, a straight, square beam of yellow gold thrown across a white fire, and clearly seen through it. It was still afternoon when the dress rehearsal began, but the night

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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 18
CHAPTER XVIII After the adventure on the Versailles road, Lushington eschewed disguises, changed his lodgings again and appeared in clothes that fitted him. It was a great relief to look like a human being and a gentleman, even at the cost of calling himself an ass for having tried to look like something else. There was but one difficulty in the way of resuming his former appearance, and that lay in the loss of his beard, which would take some time to grow again, while its growth would involve retirement from civilisation during several weeks. But he reflected that it was