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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 20
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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 20 Post by :dducote Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :3429

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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 would have come when it ended. There is always a pleasant latitude about dress rehearsals, even when the piece is old and there is no new stage machinery to be tried. While the play or the opera is actually going on, everything works quickly as in a real performance, but between the acts, or even between one scene and another, there is a tendency on the part of the actors and the invited public to treat the whole affair as a party of pleasure. Doors of communication are opened which would otherwise be shut, people wander about the house, looking for their friends, and if there is plenty of room they change seats now and then. Many of the people are extremely shabby, others are preternaturally smart; if it is in the daytime everybody wears street clothes and the women rarely take off their hats. It is only at the evening dress rehearsals of important new pieces at the great Paris theatres that the house presents its usual appearance, but then there have been already three or four real dress rehearsals at which the necessary work has been done.

The theatre at which Margaret was making her _debut was a large one in a Belgian city, a big modern house, to all appearance, and really fitted with the usual modern machinery which has completely changed the working of the stage since electricity was introduced. But the building itself was old and was full of queer nooks at the back, and passages and shafts long disused; and it had two stage entrances, one of which was now kept locked, while the other had the usual swinging doors guarded by a sharp-eyed doorkeeper who knew and remembered several thousand faces of actors, singers, authors, painters, and carpenters, and of other privileged persons from princes and bankers to dressmakers' girls who had, or had once had, the right to enter by the stage door. The two entrances were on opposite sides of the building. The one no longer in use led out to a dark, vaulted passage or alley wide enough for a carriage to enter; and formerly the carriages of the leading singers had driven up by that way, entering at one end and going out at the other, but the side that had formerly led to the square before the theatre was now built up, and contained a small shop having a back door in the dark alley, and only the other exit remained, and it opened upon an unfrequented street behind the theatre.

The dressing-rooms had been disposed with respect to this old entrance, and their position had never been changed. It had been convenient for the prima donna to be able to reach her carriage after the performance without crossing the stage; whereas, as things were now arranged, she had a long distance to go. The new stage door had been made within the last ten years, so that every one who had known the theatre longer than that was well aware of the existence of the old one, though few people knew that it could still be opened on emergency, as in case of fire, and that it was also used for bringing in the unusually big boxes in which some of the great singers sent their dresses. The dressing-rooms opened upon a wide but ill-lighted corridor which led from the stage near the back on the left; the last dressing-room was the largest and was always the prima donna's. Just beyond it a door closed the end of the passage, leading to the doorkeeper's former vestibule, which was now never lighted, and beyond that a short flight of steps led down to the locked outer door, on the level of the street. In the same corridor there were of course other dressing-rooms which were not all used in _Rigoletto_, an opera which has only two principal women's parts; whereas in the _Huguenots_, for instance, the rooms would all have been full, there would have been a number of maids about and more lights. In _Rigoletto_, too, the contralto does not even come to the theatre to dress until the opera is more than half over, as she is only on in the third act. The Contessa and Giovanna do not count, as they have so little to do.

This short explanation of the topography of the building is necessary in order to understand clearly what happened on that memorable afternoon and evening.

Margaret Donne was in her dressing-room, quite unaware that anything was going to occur beyond the first great ordeal of singing to a full house, a matter which was of itself enough to fill the day and to bring even Margaret's solid nerves to a state of tension which she had not anticipated. The bravest and coolest men have felt their hearts beating faster just before facing cold steel or going into battle, and almost all of them have felt something else too, which has nothing to do with the heart, and which I can only compare to what many women suffer from when there is going to be a thunderstorm--an indescribable physical restlessness and bodily irritation which make it irksome to stay long in one position and impossible to think consecutively and reasonably about ordinary matters. There is no sport like fighting with real weapons, with the certainty that life itself is depending at every instant on one's own hand and eye. No other game of skill or hazard can compare with that. It is chess, played for life and death, with an element of chance which chess has not; your foot may slip, your eye may be dazzled by a ray of light or a sudden reflection, or if you are not a first-rate player you may miscalculate your distance by four inches, which, in steel, is exactly enough; or if the weapons are fire-arms you may aim a little too high or too low, or the other man may, and that little will mean the difference between time and eternity.

But in the scale of emotion and excitement the theatre comes next to fighting, whether you be the author of the play or opera to be given for the first time before the greatest and most critical audience in the world, or the actor, or actress, or singer, who has not yet been heard or seen and of whom wonders are expected on the great night.

Margaret had not believed it true, though she had often heard it, and now she was amazed at the strangeness of the physical sensation which came over her and grew till it was almost intolerable. It was not fright, for she longed for the moment of appearing; it was not ordinary nervousness, for she felt that she was as steady as a rock, and now and then, when she tried a few notes, to 'limber' her voice, it was steady, too, and exactly what it always was. Yet she felt as if some tremendous, unseen shape of strength had hold of her and were pressing her to itself; and then again, she was sure that she was going to see something unreal in her brightly-lighted, whitewashed dressing-room, and that if she did see it, she should be frightened. But she saw nothing; nothing but the dresses she was to wear, the handsome court gown of the second act, the limp purple silk tights, the doublet, long cloak and spurred boots of the third, all laid out carefully in their newness, on the small sofa and the chairs. She saw Madame Bonanni's cadaverous maid, too, standing motionless and ready if wanted, and looking at her with a sort of inscrutable curiosity; for the retired prima donna had insisted upon doing Margaret the signal service of passing on to her one of the most accomplished theatrical dressers in Europe. A woman who had made Madame Bonanni look like Juliet or Lucia could make Margarita da Cordova look a goddess from Olympus; and she did, from the theatrical point of view. But Margaret was not yet used to seeing herself in the glass when her face was made up, beautifully though it was done, and she kept away from the two mirrors as much as she could while she slowly paced the well-worn carpet, moving her shoulders now and then, and her arms, as if to make sure that she was at ease in her stage clothes.

There was no one in the room but she and the maid. She had particularly asked Schreiermeyer not to come and see her till the end of the second act, and Madame Bonanni stayed away of her own accord, rather to Margaret's surprise, but greatly to her relief. At the last minute Mrs. Rushmore had refused to come at all, and had stayed in France, in a state of excitement and almost terror which made her very unlike herself, and would have rendered her a most disturbing companion. She could not see it, she said. The daughter of her old friend should always be welcome in her house, but Mrs. Rushmore could not face the theatre, to see Margaret come on in the last scene booted and spurred like a man. That was more than she could bear. You might say what you liked, but she would never see Margaret on the stage, never, never! And so she would keep her old illusions about the girl, and it would be easier to welcome her when she came on a visit. Margaret must have a chaperon of course, but she must hire one of those respectable-looking stage mothers who are always to be had when young actresses need them. It would have broken her old friend's heart to see her daughter chaperoned by a 'stage mother,' but it could not be helped. That much protection was necessary. She had burst into a very painful fit of crying when Margaret had left her, and had really suffered more than at any time since the death of the departed Mr. Rushmore.

Logotheti had given no sign of life, and Margaret had neither seen him nor heard from him since the eventful day when she had last spoken to him in his own house. He would not even come this evening, she was sure. He had either given her up altogether, or he had amused himself by obeying her to the letter; in which case he would not present himself till after the real performance, which was to take place on the next day but one. He might have written a note, or sent a telegram, she thought; but on the whole she cared very little. If she thought of any one but herself at that moment she thought of Lushington and wished she might see him again between the acts. He had called in the afternoon, and had been very quiet and sympathetic. She had feared that even at the last he would make a scene and entreat her to change her mind, and give up the idea of the stage, at any cost. But instead, he now seemed resigned to her future career, talked cheerfully and predicted unbounded success.

She had received very many letters and telegrams from other friends, and some of them lay in a heap on the dressing-table. The greater part were from people who had known her at Mrs. Rushmore's, and who did not look upon her attempt as anything more than the caprice of a gifted amateur. Society always finds it hard to believe that one of its own can leave it and turn professional.

It was like Margaret to prefer solitude just then. People who trust themselves would generally rather be alone just before a great event in their lives, and Margaret trusted herself a good deal more than she trusted any one else. Nevertheless, she began to feel that unless something happened soon, the nameless, indescribable pressure she felt would become unbearable, and as she walked the shabby carpet, her step accented itself to a little tramp, like a marching step. The cadaverous maid looked on with curiosity and said nothing. In her long career she had never dressed a _debutante_, and she had heard that _debutantes sometimes behaved oddly before going on. Besides, she knew something which Margaret did not know; for when she had come down to the theatre in the morning with the luggage, she had met Madame Bonanni in the dressing-room, and her late mistress had given her a piece of information and some very precise instructions.

A moment came when Margaret felt that she could no longer bear the close atmosphere of the small room and the curious eyes of the cadaverous maid, watching her as she walked up and down. Madame Bonanni would have made the woman go out or even stand with her face to the wall, but Margaret had not yet lost that aristocratic sense of consideration for servants which Plato ascribes to pride. Instead of turning the maid out, Margaret suddenly opened the door wide and stood on the threshold, breathing with relief the not very sweet air that came down the corridor from the stage. It came laden with a compound odour of ropes, dusty scenery, mouldy flour paste and cotton velvet furniture, the whole very hot and far from aromatic, but at that moment as refreshing as a sea-breeze to the impatient singer. The smell had already acquired associations for her during the long weeks of rehearsal, and she liked it; for it meant the stage, and music, and the sound of her own beautiful voice, high and clear above the rest. Lushington might think of her when spring violets were near him, Logotheti might associate with her the intoxicating perfumes of the East, but Margaret's favourite scent was already that strange compound of smells which meets the nostrils nowhere in the world except behind the scenes. I have often wondered why the strong draught that comes from the back when the curtain is up does not blow the smell into the house, to the great annoyance of the audience; but it does not. Perhaps, like everything else behind the curtain, it is not real, after all; or perhaps it has a very high specific gravity, and would stay behind even if all the air passed out, preferring the vacuum which nature abhors--nothing would seem too absurd to account for the phenomenon.

It did not occur to Margaret to wonder that there should be a draught at all, at the end of a closed corridor. She stood on the threshold, resting one hand on the door-post and looking towards the stage. In the distance she could see it, somewhere in the neighbourhood of what is technically described as L 3, where a group of courtiers and court ladies were standing ready to go on in the Introduction. The border lights were up already, Margaret could see that, and just then she heard the warning signal to be ready to raise the curtain, and the first distant notes of the orchestra reached her ears. She breathed a sigh of relief. The long-wished-for ordeal had begun at last, and the tension of her nerves relaxed. The sensation was strangely delicious and quite new to her; the quiet and solitude of the dressing-room would not be disagreeable now, nor the steady gaze of the sallow-faced maid.

She turned half round to step back, and in so doing faced the end of the corridor. She had not the slightest idea of what was beyond the door she saw there, and which she had not noticed before, but she saw that it was now not quite shut, and that it moved slowly on its hinges as if it had been more open until that moment. So far as she knew there was no reason why it should be closed, but a little natural curiosity moved her to go and see what there was on the other side of it. It was not three steps from her own door, yet when she reached it, it was tightly closed, and when she took hold of the handle of the latch it resisted the effort she made to open it, though she had not heard the key turn in the lock. This seemed strange, but being under the influence of a much stronger excitement than she herself realised, she turned back without thinking seriously of it, being willing to believe that her sight had deceived her, where the light was so dim, and that the door had not been really open at all. Her eyes met those of the maid, who had evidently come to the threshold of the dressing-room to watch her.

'I thought that door was open,' she said, as if in answer to a question.

The woman said nothing, but passed her quickly and went and tried the lock herself. Though she was so very thin, she was strong, as bony people often are. She tried the handle with both hands, turned it, though with much difficulty, and pulled suddenly with all her might. The door yielded a little at first--not more than half an inch perhaps--but then it closed itself again with a strength far greater than she could resist. She shrugged her shoulders as she desisted and came back.

'It is a disused door,' she said. 'It will not open.'

Her tone was so indifferent that Margaret paid little attention to the words, and turned away to listen to the music which reached her from the stage. The curtain was up now, and the courtiers were dancing, up stage; she could see a few of them pass and repass; then she heard the little round of applause that greeted the Duke's appearance as he went forward to begin his scene with Borsa. He had many friends in the invited audience, and was moreover one of the popular light tenors of the day. Doubtless, the elderly woman of the world who worshipped him was there in her glory, in a stage-box, ready to split her gloves when he should sing 'La donna e mobile.' Margaret knew that the wholesale upholsterer who admired the contralto was not far off, for she had seen a man bringing in flowers for her, and no one else would have sent them to her for a mere dress rehearsal.

Margaret was so well used to the opera that the time passed quickly after the Duke had begun his scene.

The silent maid approached her with a hare's-foot and a saucer, to put a finishing touch on her face, to which she submitted with indifference, listening all the time to the music that came to her through the open door. There was time yet, but she was not impatient any more; the opera had begun and she was a part of it already, before she had set her foot upon the stage, before she had seen, for the first time, the full house before her, instead of the yawning emptiness. It would be dark when she went on, for Gilda's first entrance is in the night scene in the courtyard, but it would not be empty, and perhaps it would not be silent either. It was quite likely that a little encouraging applause for the young _debutante would be heard.

Margaret smiled to herself as she thought of that. She would make them applaud her in real earnest before the curtain went down, not by way of good-natured encouragement, but whether they would or not. She was very sure of herself, and the cadaverous maid watched her with curiosity and admiration, wondering very much whether such pride might not go before a fall, and end in a violent stage fright. But then, the object of the dress rehearsal was to guard against the consequences of such a misfortune. If Margaret could not sing a note at first, it would not matter to-day, but it would certainly matter a good deal the day after to-morrow.

When the end of the Introduction was near, Margaret turned back into the room and sat down before the toilet-table to wait. She heard her maid shut the door, and the loud music of the full orchestra and chorus immediately sounded very faint and far away. When she looked round, she saw that the maid had gone out and that she was quite alone.

In ten minutes the scenery would be changed; five minutes after that, and her career would have definitely begun. She folded her whitened hands, leaned back thoughtfully and looked into her own eyes reflected in the mirror. The world knows very little about the great moments in artists' lives. It sees the young prima donna step upon the stage for the first time, smiling in the paint that perhaps hides her deadly pallor. She is so pretty, so fresh, so ready to sing! Perhaps she looks even beautiful; at all events, she is radiant, and looks perfectly happy. The world easily fancies that she has just left her nearest and dearest, her mother, her sisters, in the flies; that they have come with her to the boundary of the Play-King's Kingdom, and are waiting to lead her back to real life when she shall have finished her part in the pretty illusion.

The reality is different. Sometimes it is a sad and poor reality, rarely it is tragic; most often it is sordid, uninteresting, matter-of-fact, possibly vulgar; it is almost surely very much simpler than romantic people would wish it to be. As likely as not, the young prima donna is all alone just before going on, as Margaret was, looking at herself in the glass--this last, for one thing, is a certainty; and she is either badly frightened or very calm, for there is no such thing as being 'only a little' frightened the first time. That condition sometimes comes afterwards and may last through life. But pity those whose courage fails them the first time, for there is no more awful sensation for a man or woman in perfect health than to stand alone before a great audience, and suddenly to forget words, music, everything, and to see the faces of the people in the house turned upside down, and the chandelier swinging round like a wind mill while all the other lights tumble into it, and to notice with horror that the big stage is pitching and rolling like the most miserable little steamer that ever went to sea; and to feel that if one cannot remember one's part, one's head will certainly fly off at the neck and join the hideous dance of jumbled heads and lights and stalls and boxes in the general chaos.

Margaret, however, deserved no pity on that afternoon, for she was not in the least afraid of anything, except that the courtiers who were to carry her off at the end of her first scene might be clumsy, or that the sack in the last act would be dusty inside and make her sneeze. But as for that, she was willing that the ending should be a failure, as Madame Bonanni said it must be, for she did not mean to do it again if she could possibly help it.

She was not afraid, but she was not so very calm as she fancied she was, for afterwards, even on that very evening, she found it impossible to remember anything that happened from the moment when the sallow maid entered the dressing-room again, closely followed by the call-boy, who knocked on the open door and spoke her stage name, until she found herself well out on the stage, in Rigoletto's arms, uttering the girlish cry which begins Gilda's part. The three notes, not very high, not very loud, were drowned in the applause that roared at her from the house.

It was so loud, so unexpected, that she was startled for a moment, and remained with one arm on the barytone's shoulder looking rather shyly across the lowered footlights and over the director's head. He had already laid down his baton to wait.

'You must acknowledge that, and I must begin over again,' said the barytone, so loud that Margaret fancied every one must hear him.

He moved back a little when he had spoken and left her in the middle of the stage. She drew herself up, bent her head, smiled, and made a little courtesy, all as naturally as if she had never done anything else. Thereupon the clapping grew louder for one instant, and then ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The director raised his baton and looked at her, Rigoletto came forward once more calling to her, and she fell into his arms again with her little cry. There was no sound from the house now, and the silence was so intense that she could easily fancy herself at an ordinary rehearsal, with only a dozen or fifteen people looking on out of the darkness.

But she was thinking of nothing now. She was out of the world, in the Play-King's palace, herself a part, and a principal part, of an illusion, an imaginary personage in one of the dreams that great old Verdi had dreamt long ago, in his early manhood. Her lips parted and her matchless voice floated out of its own accord, filling the darkened air; she moved, but she did not know it, though every motion had been studied for weeks; she sung as few have ever sung, but it was to her as if some one else were singing while she listened and made no effort.

The duet is long, as Margaret had often thought when studying it, but now she was almost startled because it seemed to her so soon that she found herself once more embracing Rigoletto and uttering a very high note at the same time. Very vaguely she wondered whether the far-off person who had been singing for her had not left out something, and if so, why there had been no hitch. Then came the thunder of applause again, not in greeting now, but in praise of her, long-drawn, tremendous, rising and bursting and falling, like the breakers on an ocean beach.

'Brava! brava!' yelled Rigoletto in her ear; but she could hardly hear him for the noise.

She pressed his hand almost affectionately as she courtesied to the audience. If she could have thought at all, she would have remembered how Madame Bonanni had once told her that in moments of great success everybody embraces everybody else on the stage. But she could not think of anything. She was not frightened, but she was dazed; she felt the tide of triumph rising round her heart, and upwards towards her throat, like something real that was going to choke her with delight. The time while she had been singing had seemed short; the seconds during which the applause lasted seemed very long, but the roar sounded sweeter than anything had ever sounded to her before that day.

It ceased presently, and Margaret heard from the house that deep-drawn breath just after the applause ended, which tells that an audience is in haste for more and is anticipating interest or pleasure. The conductor's baton rose again and Margaret sang her little scene with the maid, and the few bars of soliloquy that follow, and presently she was launched in the great duet with the Duke, who had stolen forward to throw himself and his high note at her feet with such an air of real devotion, that the elderly woman of the world who admired him felt herself turning green with jealousy in the gloom of her box, and almost cried out at him.

He took his full share of the tremendous applause that broke out at the end, almost before the lovers had sung the last note of their parts, but the public made it clear enough that most of it was for Margaret, by yelling out, 'Brava, la Cordova!' again and again. The tenor was led off through the house by the maid at last, and Margaret was left to sing 'Caro nome' alone. Whatever may be said of _Rigoletto as a composition--and out of Italy it was looked upon as a failure at first--it is certainly an opera which of all others gives a lyric soprano a chance of showing what she can do at her first appearance.

By this time Margaret was beyond the possibility of failure; she had at first sung almost unconsciously, under the influence of a glorious excitement like a beautiful dream, but she was now thoroughly aware of what she was doing and sang the intricate music of the aria with a judgment, a discrimination and a perfectly controlled taste which appealed to the real critics much more than all that had gone before. But the applause, though loud, was short, and hardly delayed Margaret's exit ten seconds. A moment later she was seen on the terrace with her lamp.

Madame Bonanni had listened with profound attention to every note that Margaret sang. She was quietly dressed in a costume of very dark stuff, she wore a veil, and few people would have recognised the dark, pale face of the middle-aged woman now that it was no longer painted. She leaned back in her box alone, watching the stage and calling up a vision of herself, from long ago, singing for the first time in the same house. For she had made her _debut in that very theatre, as many great singers have done. It was all changed, the house, the decorations, the stage entrance, but those same walls were standing which had echoed to her young voice, the same roof was overhead, and all her artist's lifetime was gone by.

As Margaret disappeared at last, softly repeating her lover's name, while the conspirators began to fill the stage, the door of the box opened quietly, and Lushington came and sat down close behind his mother.

'Well?' she said, only half turning her head, for she knew it was he. 'What do you think?'

'You know what I think, mother,' he answered.

'You did not want her to do it.'

'I've changed my mind,' said Lushington. 'It's the real thing. It would be a sin to keep it off the stage.'

Madame Bonanni nodded thoughtfully, but said nothing. A knock was heard at the door of the box. Lushington got up and opened, and the dark figure of the cadaverous maid appeared in the dim light. Before she had spoken, Madame Bonanni was close to her.

'They are in the chorus,' said the maid in a low voice, 'and there is some one behind the door, waiting. I think it will be now.'

That was all Lushington heard, but it was quite enough to awaken his curiosity. Who was in the chorus? Behind which door was some one waiting? What was to happen 'now'?

Madame Bonanni reflected a moment before she answered.

'They won't try it now,' she said, at last, very confidently.

The maid shrugged her thin shoulders, as if to say that she declined to take any responsibility in the matter, and did not otherwise care much.

'Do exactly as I told you,' Madame Bonanni said. 'If anything goes wrong, it will be my fault, not yours.'

'Very good, Madame,' answered the maid.

She went away, and Madame Bonanni returned to her seat in the front of the box, without any apparent intention of explaining matters to Lushington.

'What is happening?' he asked after a few moments. 'Can I be of any use?'

'Not yet,' answered his mother. 'But you may be, by and by. I shall want you to take a message to her.'

'To Miss Donne? When?'

'Have you ever been behind in this theatre? Do you know your way about?'

'Yes. What am I to do?'

Madame Bonanni did not answer at once. She was scrutinising the faces of the courtiers on the darkened stage, and wishing very much that there were more light.

'Schreiermeyer is doing things handsomely,' Lushington observed. 'He has really given us a good allowance of conspirators.'

'There are four more than usual,' said Madame Bonanni, who had counted the chorus.

'They make a very good show,' Lushington observed indifferently. 'But I did not think they made much noise in the Introduction, when they were expected to.'

'Perhaps,' suggested Madame Bonanni, 'the four supernumeraries are dummies, put on to fill up.'

Just then the chorus was explaining at great length, as choruses in operas often do, that it was absolutely necessary not to make the least noise, while Rigoletto stood at the foot of the ladder, pretending neither to hear them nor to know, in the supposed total darkness, that his eyes were bandaged.

'Have you seen Logotheti?' asked Lushington.

'Not yet, but I shall certainly see him before it's over. I'm sure that he is somewhere in the house.'

'He came over from Paris in his motor car,' Lushington said.

'I know he did.'

There was no reason why she should not know that Logotheti had come in his car, but Lushington thought she seemed annoyed that the words should have slipped out. Her eyes were still fixed intently on the stage.

She rose to her feet suddenly, as if she had seen something that startled her.

'Wait for me!' she said almost sharply, as she passed her son.

She was gone in an instant, and Lushington leaned back in his seat, indifferent to what was going on, since Margaret had disappeared from the stage. As for his mother's unexpected departure, he never was surprised at anything she did, and whatever she did, she generally did without warning, with a rush, as if some one's life depended on it. He fancied that her practised eye had noticed something that did not please her in the stage management, and that she had hurried away to give her opinion.

But she had only gone behind to meet Margaret as she was carried off the stage with a handkerchief tied over her mouth. She knew very nearly at what point to wait, and the four big men in costume who came off almost at a run, carrying Margaret between them, nearly ran into Madame Bonanni, whom they certainly did not expect to find there.

When she was in the way, in a narrow place, it was quite hopeless to try and pass her. The four men, still carrying Margaret, stopped, but looked bewildered, as if they did not know what to do, and did not set her down.

Madame Bonanni sprang at them and almost took her bodily from their arms, tearing the handkerchief from her mouth just in time to let her utter the cry for help which is heard from behind the scenes. It was answered instantly by the courtiers shout of triumph, in which the four men who had carried off Gilda did not join. Margaret gave one more cry, and instantly Madame Bonanni led her quickly away towards her dressing-room, a little shaken and in a very bad temper with the men who had carried her.

'I knew they would be clumsy!' she said.

'So did I,' answered her friend. 'That is why I came round to meet you.'

They entered the dim corridor together, and an instant later they both heard the sharp click of a door hastily closed at the other end. It was not the door of Margaret's dressing-room, for that was wide open and the light from within fell across the dark paved floor, nor was it the door of the contralto's room, for that was ajar when they passed it. She had not come in to dress yet.

'That door does not shut well,' Margaret said, indifferently.

'No,' answered Madame Bonanni, in a rather preoccupied tone. 'Where is your maid?'

The cadaverous maid came up very quickly from behind, overtaking them with Margaret's grey linen duster.

'They did not carry Mademoiselle out at the usual fly,' she said. 'I was waiting there.'

'They were abominably clumsy,' Margaret said, still very much annoyed. 'They almost hurt me, and somebody had the impertinence to double-knot the handkerchief after I had arranged it! I'll send for Schreiermeyer at once, I think! If I hadn't solid nerves a thing like that might ruin my _debut_!'

The maid smiled discreetly. The dress rehearsal for Margaret's _debut was not half over yet, but she had already the dominating tone of the successful prima donna, and talked of sending at once for the redoubtable manager, as if she were talking about scolding the call-boy. And the maid knew very well that if sent for Schreiermeyer would come and behave with relative meekness, because he had a prospective share in the fortune which was in the Cordova's throat.

But Madame Bonanni was in favour of temporising.

'Don't send for him, my dear,' she said. 'Getting angry is very bad for the voice, and your duet with Rigoletto in the next act is always trying.

They were in the dressing-room now, all three women, and the door was shut.

'Is it all right?' Margaret asked, sitting down and looking into the glass. 'Am I doing well?'

'You don't need me to tell you that! You are magnificent! Divine! No one ever began so well as you, not even I, my dear, not even I myself!'

This was said with great emphasis. Nothing, perhaps, could have surprised Madame Bonanni more than that any one should sing better at the beginning than she had sung herself; but having once admitted the fact she was quite willing that Margaret should know it, and be made happy.

'You're the best friend that ever was!' cried Margaret, springing up; and for the first time in their acquaintance she threw her arms round the elder woman's neck and kissed her--hitherto the attack, if I may call it so, had always come from Madame Bonanni, and had been sustained by Margaret.

'Yes,' said Madame Bonanni, 'I'm your best friend now, but in a couple of days you will have your choice of the whole world! Now dress, for I'm going away, and though it's only a rehearsal, it's of no use to keep people waiting.'

Margaret looked at her and for the first time realised the change in her appearance, the quiet colours of her dress, the absence of paint on her cheeks, the moderation of the hat. Yet on that very morning Margaret had seen her still in all her glory when she had arrived from Paris.

One woman always knows when another notices her dress. Women have a sixth sense for clothes.

'Yes, my dear,' Madame Bonanni said, as soon as she was aware that Margaret had seen the change, 'I did not wish to come to your _debut looking like an advertisement of my former greatness, so I put on this. Tom likes it. He thinks that I look almost like a human being in it!'

'That's complimentary of him!' laughed Margaret.

'Oh, he wouldn't say such a thing, but I see it is just what he thinks. Perhaps I'll send him to you with a message, by and by, before you get into your sack, while the storm is going on. If I do, it will be because it s very important, and whatever he says comes directly from me.'

'Very well,' Margaret said quietly. 'I shall always take your advice, though I hate that last scene.'

'I'm beginning to think that it may be more effective than we thought,' answered Madame Bonanni, with a little laugh. 'Good-bye, my dear.'

'Won't you come and dine with me afterwards?' asked Margaret, who had begun to change her dress. 'There will only be Madame De Rosa. You know she could not get here in time for the rehearsal, but she is coming before nine o'clock.'

'No, dear. I cannot dine with you to-night. I've made an engagement I can't break. But do you mean to say that anything could keep De Rosa in Paris this afternoon?' Madame Bonanni was very much surprised, for she knew that the excellent teacher almost worshipped her pupil.

'Yes,' said Margaret. 'She wrote me that Monsieur Logotheti had some papers for her to sign to-day before a notary, and that somehow if she did not stay and sign them she would lose most of what she has.'

'That's ingenious!' exclaimed Madame Bonanni, with a laugh.

'Ingenious?' Margaret did not understand. 'Do you mean that Madame De Rosa has invented the story?'

'No, no!' cried the other. 'I mean it was ingenious of fate, you know--to make such a thing happen just to-day.'

'Oh, very!' assented Margaret carelessly, and rather wishing that Madame Bonanni would go away, for though she was turning into a professional artist at an almost alarming rate, she was not yet hardened in regard to little things and preferred to be alone with her maid while she was dressing.

But Madame Bonanni had no intention of staying, and now went away rather abruptly, after nodding to her old maid, unseen by Margaret, as if there were some understanding between them, for the woman answered the signal with an unmistakable look of intelligence.

In the corridor Madame Bonanni met the contralto taking a temporary leave of the wholesale upholsterer at the door of her dressing-room, a black-browed, bony young Italian woman with the face of a Medea, whose boast it was that with her voice and figure she could pass for a man when she pleased.

Madame Bonanni greeted her and stopped a moment.

'Please do not think I have only just come to the theatre,' said the Italian. 'I have been listening to her in the house, though I have heard her so often at rehearsals.'

'Well?' asked the elder woman. 'What do you think of it?'

'It is the voice of an angel--and then, she is handsome, too! But----'

'But what?'

'She is a statue,' answered the contralto in a tone of mingled pity and contempt. 'She has no heart.'

'They say that of most lyric sopranos,' laughed Madame Bonanni.

'I never heard it said of you! You have a heart as big as the world!' The Italian made a circle of her two arms, to convey an idea of the size of the prima donna's heart, while the wholesale upholsterer, who had a good eye, compared the measurement with that lady's waist. 'You bring the tears to my eyes when you sing,' continued the contralto, 'but Cordova is different. She only makes me hate her because she has such a splendid voice!'

'Don't hate her, my dear,' said Madame Bonanni gently. 'She's a friend of mine. And as for the heart, child, it's like a loaf of bread! You must break it to get anything out of it, and if you never break it at all it dries up into a sort of little wooden cannon-ball! Cordova will break hers, some day, and then you will all say that she is a great artist!'

Thereupon Madame Bonanni kissed the contralto affectionately, as she kissed most people, nodded and smiled to the wholesale upholsterer, and went on her way to cross the stage and get back to her box.

She found Lushington there when she opened the door, looking as if he had not moved since she had left him. He rose as she entered, and then sat down beside her.

'Have you any money with you?' she asked, suddenly.

'Yes. How much do you want?'

'I don't want any for myself. Tom, do something for me. Go out and buy the biggest woman's cloak you can find. The shops are all open still. Get something that will come down to my feet, and cover me up entirely. We are nearly of the same height, and you can measure it on yourself.'

'All right,' said Lushington, who was well used to his mother's caprices.

'And, Tom,' she called, as he was going to the door, 'get a closed carriage and bring it to the stage entrance when you come back. And be quick, my darling child! You must be back in half-an-hour, or you won't hear the duet.'

'It won't take half an hour to buy a cloak,' answered Lushington.

'Oh, I forgot--it must have a hood that will quite cover my head--I mean without my hat, of course!'

'Very well--a big hood. I understand. Anything else?'

'No. Now run, sweet child!'

Lushington went out to do the errand, and Madame Bonanni drew back into the shadow of the box, for the lights were up in the house between the acts. She sat quite still, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hand, and her elbow on her knee, thinking.

There was a knock at the door; she sprang to her feet and opened, and found a shabby woman, who looked like a rather slatternly servant, standing outside with the box-opener, who had shown her where to find the prima donna. The shabby woman gave her a dingy piece of paper folded and addressed hurriedly in pencil, in Logotheti's familiar handwriting. She spread out the half-sheet and read the contents twice over, looked hard at the messenger and then looked at the note again.

'Who gave you this? Who sent you?' she asked.

'You are Madame Bonanni, are you not?' inquired the woman, instead of answering.

'Of course I am! I want to know who sent you to me.'

'The note is for you, Madame, is it not?' asked the woman, by way of reply.

'Yes, certainly! Can't you answer my question?' Madame Bonanni was beginning to be angry.

'I will take the answer to the note, if there is one,' answered the other, coolly.

Madame Bonanni was on the point of flying into a rage, but she apparently thought better of it. The contents of the note might be true after all. She read it again.

Dear lady (it said), I am the victim of the most absurd and annoying mistake. I have been arrested for Schirmer, the betting man who murdered his mother-in-law and escaped from Paris yesterday. They will not let me communicate with any one till tomorrow morning and I have had great trouble in getting this line to you. For heaven's sake bring Schreiermeyer and anybody else you can find, to identify me, as soon as possible. I am locked up in a cell in the police station of the Third Arrondissement.----

Yours ever,

C. LOGOTHETI.

Madame Bonanni looked at the woman again.

'Did you see the gentleman?' she asked.

'What gentleman?'

'The gentleman who is in prison!'

'What prison?' asked the woman with dogged stupidity.

'You re a perfect idiot!' cried Madame Bonanni, and she slammed the door of the box in the woman's face, and bolted it inside.

She sat down and read the note a fourth time. There was no doubt as to its being really from Logotheti. She laughed to herself.

'More ingenious than ever!' she said, half aloud.

A timid knock at the door of the box. She rose with evident annoyance, and opened again, to meet the respectable old box-opener, a grey-haired woman of fifty-five.

'Please, Madame, is the woman to go away? She seems to be waiting for something.'

'Tell her to go to all the devils!' answered Madame Bonanni, furious. 'No--don't!' she cried. 'Where is she? Come here, you!' she called, seeing the woman at a little distance. 'Do you know what you are doing? You are trying to help Schirmer, the murderer, to escape. If you are not careful you will be in prison yourself before morning! That is the answer! Now go, and take care that you are not caught!'

The woman, who was certainly not over-intelligent, stared hard at Madame Bonanni for a moment, and then turned, with a cry of terror, and fled along the circular passage.

'You should not let in such suspicious-looking people,' said Madame Bonanni to the box-opener in a severe tone.

The poor soul began an apology, but Madame Bonanni did not stop to listen, and entered the box again, shutting the door behind her.

The curtain went up before Lushington came back, but the prima donna did not look at the stage and scarcely heard the tenor's lament, the chorus and the rest. She seemed quite lost in her thoughts. Then Lushington appeared with a big dark cloak on his arm.

'Will this do, mother?' he asked.

She stood up and made him put it over her. It had a hood, as she had wished, which quite covered her head and would cover her face, too, if she wished not to be recognised.

'It's just what I wanted,' she said. 'Hang it on the hook by the door, and sit down. Gilda will be on in a minute.'

Lushington obeyed, and if he wondered a little at first why his mother should want a big cloak on a suffocating evening in July, he soon forgot all about it in listening to Margaret's duet with Rigoletto. His mother sat perfectly motionless in her seat, her eyes closed, following every note.

At the end of the short act, the applause became almost riotous, and if Margaret had appeared before the curtain she would have had an ovation. But in the first place, it was only a rehearsal, after all, and secondly there was no one to call her back after she had gone to her dressing-room to dress for the last act. She heard the distant roar, however, and felt the tide of triumph rising still higher round her heart. If she had been used to her cadaverous maid, too, she would have seen that the woman's manner was growing more deferential each time she saw her. Success was certain, now, a great and memorable success, which would be proclaimed throughout the world in a very few days. The new star was rising fast, and it was the sallow-faced maid's business to serve stars and no others.

For the first scene of the last act Gilda puts on a gown over her man's riding-dress; and when Rigoletto sends her off, she has only to drop the skirt, draw on the long boots and throw her riding-cloak round her to come on for the last scene. Of course the prima donna is obliged to come back to her dressing-room to make even this slight change.

Madame Bonanni was speaking earnestly to Lushington in an undertone during the interval before the last act, and as he listened to what she said his face became very grave, and his lips set themselves together in a look which his mother knew well enough.

The act proceeded, and Margaret's complete triumph became more and more a matter of certainty. She sang with infinite grace and tenderness that part in the quartet which is intended to express the operatic broken heart, while the Duke, the professional murderer, and Maddalena are laughing and talking inside the inn. That sort of thing does not appeal much to our modern taste, but Margaret did what she could to make it touching, and was rewarded with round upon round of applause.

Lushington rose quietly at this point, slipped on his thin overcoat, took his hat and the big cloak he had bought, nodded to his mother and left the box. A few moments later she rose and followed him.

In due time Margaret reappeared in her man's dress, but almost completely wrapped in the traditional riding mantle. Rigoletto is off when Gilda comes on alone at this point, outside the inn, and the stage gradually darkens while the storm rises. When the trio is over and Gilda enters the ruined inn, the darkness is such, even behind the scenes, that one may easily lose one s way and it is hard to recognise any one.

Margaret disappeared, and hurried off, expecting to meet her maid with the sack ready for the final scene. To her surprise a man was standing waiting for her. She could not see his face at all, but she knew it was Lushington who whispered in her ear as he wrapped her in the big cloak he carried. He spoke fast and decidedly.

'That is why the door at the end of the corridor is open to-night,' he concluded. 'I give you my word that it s true. Now come with me.'

Margaret had told Lushington not very long ago that he always acted like a gentleman and sometimes like a hero, and she had meant it. After all, the opera was over now, and it was only a rehearsal. If there was no sack scene, no one would be surprised, and there was no time to hesitate not an instant.

She slipped her arm through Lushington's, and drawing the hood almost over her eyes with her free hand and the cloak completely round her, she went where he led her. Certainly in all the history of the opera no prima donna ever left the stage and the theatre in such a hurry after her first appearance.

One minute had hardly elapsed in all after she had disappeared into the ruined inn, before she found herself driving at a smart pace in a closed carriage, with Lushington sitting bolt upright beside her like a policeman in charge of his prisoner. It was not yet quite dark when the brougham stopped at the door of Margaret's hotel, and the porter who opened the carriage looked curiously at her riding boot and spurred heel as she got out under the covered way. She and Lushington had not exchanged a word during the short drive.

He went up in the lift with her and saw her to the door of her apartment. Then he stood still, with his hat off, holding out his hand to say good-bye.

'No,' said Margaret, 'come in. I don't care what the people think!'

He followed her into her sitting-room, and she shut the door, and turned up the electric light. When he saw her standing in the full glare of the lamps, she had thrown back her hood; she wore a wig with short tangled hair as part of her man's disguise, and her face was heavily powdered over the paint in order to produce the ghastly pallor which indicates a broken heart on the stage. The heavily-blackened lashes made her eyes seem very dark, while her lips were still a deep crimson. She held her head high, and a little thrown back, and there was something wild and almost fantastic about her looks as she stood there, that made Lushington think of one of Hoffmann's tales. She held out her whitened hand to him; and when he took it he felt the chalk on it, and it was no longer to him the hand of Margaret Donne, but the hand of the Cordova, the great soprano.

'It's of no use,' she said. 'Something always brings us together. I believe it's our fate. Thank you for what you've just done. Thank you--Tom, with all my heart!'

And suddenly the voice was Margaret's, and rang true and kind. For had he not saved her, and her career, too, perhaps? She could not but be grateful, and forget her other triumphant self for a moment. There was no knowing where that mad Greek might have taken her if she had gone near the door in the corridor again; it would have been somewhere out of Europe, to some lawless Eastern country whence she could never have got back to civilisation again.

'You must thank my mother,' Lushington answered quietly. 'It was she who found out the danger and told me what to do. But I'm glad you're safe from that brute!'

He pressed the handsome, chalked hand in his own and then to his lips when he had spoken, in a very un-English way; for, after all, he was the son of Madame Bonanni, the French singer, and only half an Anglo-Saxon.

* * * * *

The last thing Madame Bonanni remembered, before a strangely sweet and delicious perfume had overpowered her senses, was that she had congratulated herself on not having believed that Logotheti was really in prison, arrested by a mistake. How hugely ingenious he had been, she thought, in trying to get poor Margaret's best friends out of the way! But at that point, while she felt herself being carried along in the sack as swiftly and lightly as if she had been a mere child, she suddenly fell asleep.

She never had any idea how long she was unconscious, but she afterwards calculated that it must have been between twenty minutes and half an hour, and she came to herself just as she felt that she was being laid in a comfortable position on a luxuriously cushioned sofa.

She heard heavy retreating footsteps, and then she felt that a hand was undoing the mouth of the sack above her head.

'Dearest lady,' said a deep voice, with a sort of oily, anticipative gentleness in it, 'can you forgive me my little stratagem?'

The voice spoke very softly, as if the speaker were not at all sure that she was awake; but when she heard it, Madame Bonanni started, for it was certainly not the voice of Constantine Logotheti, though it was strangely familiar to her.

The sack was drawn down from her face quickly and skilfully. At the same time some slight sound from the door of the room made the man look half round.

In the softly lighted room, against the pale silk hangings, Madame Bonanni saw a tremendous profile over a huge fair beard that was half grey, and one large and rather watery blue eye behind a single eyeglass with a broad black riband. Before the possessor of these features turned to look at her, she uttered a loud exclamation of amazement. Logotheti was really in prison, after all.

Instantly the watery blue eyes met her own. Then the eyeglass dropped from its place, the jaw fell, with a wag of the fair beard, and a look of stony astonishment and blank disappointment came into all the great features, while Madame Bonanni broke into a peal of perfectly uncontrollable laughter.

And with the big-hearted woman's laugh ends the first part of this history.

 

(THE END)
(F Marion Crawford's Novel: Fair Margaret: A Portrait)

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