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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 5
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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 5 Post by :petethompson Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1734

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Fair Margaret: A Portrait - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

Little Madame Durand-De Rosa took Margaret behind the scenes just before the second act of _Romeo and Juliet was over. The famous teacher of singing was a privileged person at the Opera, and the man who kept the side door of communication between the house and the stage bowed low as he opened for her and Margaret. Things are well managed in the great opera-houses nowadays, and it is not easy to get behind when anything is going on.

The young girl felt a new sensation of awe and excitement. It was the first time she had ever found herself on the working side of the vast machinery of artistic pleasure, and her first impression was that she had been torn from an artificial paradise and was being dragged through an artificial inferno. Huge and unfamiliar objects loomed about her in the deep shadows; men with pale faces, in working clothes, stood motionless at their posts, listening and watching; others lurked in corners, dressed in mediaeval costumes that glittered in the dark. Between the flies, Margaret caught glimpses of the darkened stage, and the sound of the orchestra reached her as if muffled, while the tenor's voice sounded very loud, though he was singing softly. On a rough bit of platform six feet above the stage, stood Madame Bonanni in white satin, apparently laced to a point between life and death, her hands holding the two sides of the latticed door that opened upon the balcony. In a loft on the stage left a man was working a lime-light moon behind a sheet of blue glass in a frame; the chorus of old retainers in grey stood huddled together in semi-darkness by a fly, listening to the tenor and waiting to hear Madame Bonanni's note when she should come out.

(Illustration: "The young girl felt a new sensation of awe and excitement.")

Margaret would have waited too, but her teacher hurried her along, holding her by the hand and checking her when they came to any obstacle which the girl's unpractised eyes might not have seen in time. To the older woman it was all as familiar as her own sitting-room, for her life had been spent in the midst of it; to Margaret it was all strange, and awe-inspiring, and a little frightening. It was to be her own life, too, before long. In a few months, or perhaps a few weeks, she, too, would be standing on a platform, like Madame Bonanni, waiting to go out into the lime-light, waiting to be heard by two thousand people. She wondered whether she should be frightened, whether by any possibility her voice would stick in her throat at the great moment and suddenly croak out a hideous false note, and end her career then and there. Her heart beat fast at the thought, even now, and she pressed her teacher's guiding hand nervously; and yet, as the music reached her ears, she longed to be standing in Madame Bonanni's place with only a latticed balcony door between her and the great public. She was not thinking of Lushington now, though she had thought all day of his face when she had met him for one moment under the trees, yesterday morning, and had felt that something was gone from her life which she was to miss for a long time. That was all forgotten in what she felt at the present moment, in the wild quivering longing to be in front, the centre of the great illusion, singing as she knew that she could sing, as she had never sung before.

Madame De Rosa led her quickly down a dark corridor and a moment later she found herself in a dazzling blaze of light, in the prima donna's dressing-room.

The ceiling was low, the walls were white, and innumerable electric lamps, with no shades, filled the place with a blinding glare. It all looked bare and uncomfortable, and very untidy. There was a toilet-table, covered with little pots of grease and paint, and well-worn pads and hare's-feet, and vast stores of hairpins, besides a quantity of rings and jewels of great value, all lying together in bowls in the midst of the confusion. A tall mirror stood on one side, with wing mirrors on hinges, and bunches of lamps that could be moved about. On one of the walls half-a-dozen theatrical gowns and cloaks hung limply from pegs. Two large trunks were open and empty not far from the door. The air was hot and hard to breathe, and smelt of many things.

There were three people in the room when the two visitors entered; there was a very tall maid with an appallingly cadaverous face and shiny black hair, and there was a short fat maid who grinned and showed good teeth at Madame De Rosa. Both wore black and had white aprons, and both were perspiring profusely. The third person was an elderly man in evening dress, who rose and shook hands with the retired singer, and bowed to Margaret. He seemed to be a very quiet, unobtrusive man, who was nevertheless perfectly at his ease, and he somehow conveyed the impression that he must be always dressed for the evening, in a perfectly new coat, a brand-new shirt, a white waistcoat never worn before, and a made tie. Perhaps it was the made tie that introduced a certain disquieting element in his otherwise highly correct appearance. He wore his faded fair hair very short, and his greyish yellow beard was trimmed in a point. His fat hands were incased in tight white gloves. His pale eyes looked quietly through his glasses and made one think of the eyes of a big fish in an aquarium when it swims up and pushes its nose against the plate-glass front of the tank to look at visitors.

The eyes examined Margaret attentively.

'Monsieur Schreiermeyer, this is Miss Donne, my pupil,' said Madame De Rosa.

'Enchanted,' mumbled the manager.

He continued to scrutinise the young girl's face, and he looked so much like a doctor that she felt as if he were going to feel her pulse and tell her to put out her tongue. At the thought, she smiled pleasantly.

'Hum!' Schreiermeyer grunted softly, almost musically, in fact.

Perhaps this was a good sign, for little Madame De Rosa beamed. Margaret looked about for an empty chair, but there never seemed to be any in a room used by Madame Bonanni. There was one indeed, but Schreiermeyer had appropriated it, and sat down upon it again with perfect calm.

'Sit down,' he said, as he did so himself.

'Yes,' answered Margaret sweetly, and remained standing.

Suddenly he seemed to realise that she could not, and that the maids were not inclined to offer her a seat. His face and figure were transfigured in an instant, one fat, gloved hand shot out with extended forefinger in a gesture of command and his pale eyes flashed through his glasses, and glared furiously at the maids.

'Clear two chairs!' he shouted in a voice of thunder.

Margaret started in surprise and protest.

'But the things are all ready----' objected the cadaverous maid.

'Damn the things!' yelled Schreiermeyer. 'Clear two chairs at once!'

He seemed, on the verge of a white apoplexy, though he did not move from his seat. The cadaverous maid lifted an embroidered bodice from one of the chairs and laid it in one of the black trunks; she looked like a female undertaker laying a dead baby in its coffin. The fat maid showed all her teeth and laughed at Schreiermeyer and cleared the other chair, and brought up both together for the two ladies.

'Give yourselves the trouble to be seated,' said Schreiermeyer, in a tone so soft that it would not have disturbed a sleeping child.

As soon as he was obeyed he became quite quiet and unobtrusive again, the furious glare faded from his eyes, and the white kid hand returned to rest upon its fellow.

'How good you are!' cried Madame De Rosa gratefully, as she sat down on the cane chair.

'Hum!' grunted Schreiermeyer, musically, as if he agreed with her.

'Miss Donne has a good soprano,' the teacher ventured to say after a time.

'Ah?' ejaculated the manager in a tone of very indifferent interrogation.

There was a little pause.

'Lyric,' observed Madame De Rosa, breaking the silence.

Another pause. Schreiermeyer seemed not to have heard, and neither moved nor looked at the two.

'Lyric?' he inquired, suddenly, but with extreme softness.

'Lyric,' repeated Madame De Rosa, leaning forward a little, and fanning herself violently.

Another pause.

'Thank God!' exclaimed Schreiermeyer, without moving, but so very devoutly that Margaret stared at him in surprise.

Madame De Rosa knew that this also was an excellent sign; she looked at Margaret and nodded energetically. Whatever Schreiermeyer might mean by returning devout thanks to his Maker at that moment, the retired singer was perfectly sure that he knew his business. He was probably in need of a lyric soprano for the next season, and that might lead to an immediate engagement for Margaret.

'How hot it is!' the latter complained, in an undertone. 'There is no air at all here!'

The maids were mopping their faces with their handkerchiefs, and Madame De Rosa's fan was positively whirring. Schreiermeyer seemed quite indifferent to the temperature.

He must nevertheless have been reflecting on Margaret's last remark when he slowly turned to her after a silence of nearly a minute.

'Have you a good action of the heart?' he inquired, precisely as a doctor might have done.

'I don't know.' Margaret smiled. 'I don't know anything about my heart.'

'Then it is good,' said the manager. 'It ought to be, for you have a magnificent skin. Do you eat well and sleep well, always?'

'Perfectly. May I ask if you are a doctor?'

Madame De Rosa made furious signs to Margaret. A very faint smile flitted over the manager's quiet face.

'Some people call me an executioner,' he answered, 'because I kill the weak ones.'

'I am not afraid of work.' Margaret laughed.

'No. You will grow fat if you sing. You will grow very fat.' He spoke thoughtfully. 'After you are forty,' he added, as if by way of consolation.

'I hope not!' cried the young girl.

'Yes, you will. It is the outward sign of success in the profession. Singers who grow thin lose their voices.'

'I never grew very fat,' said Madame De Rosa, in a tone of regret.

'Precisely, my darling,' answered Schreiermeyer. 'Therefore you retired.'

Margaret was a little surprised that he should call her teacher 'my darling,' and that the good lady should seem to think it quite natural, but her reflections on obesity and the manners of theatrical people were interrupted, though not by any means arrested for the night, by the clattering sound of high-heeled shoes in the corridor. The act was over, and Madame Bonanni was coming back from the stage. In a moment she was in the doorway, and as she entered the room she unmasked a third maid who followed her with a cloak.

She saw Margaret first, as the latter rose to meet her. Margaret felt as if the world itself were putting huge arms round her and kissing her on both cheeks. The embrace was of terrific power, and a certain amount of grease paint came off.

'Little Miss Donne,' cried the prima donna, relaxing her hold on Margaret's waist but instantly seizing her by the wrist and turning her round sharply, like a dressmaker's doll on a pivot, 'that is Schreiermeyer! The great Schreiermeyer! The terrible Schreiermeyer! You see him before you, my child! Tremble! Every one trembles before Schreiermeyer!'

The manager had risen, but was perfectly imperturbable and silent. He did not even grunt. Madame Bonanni dropped Margaret's wrist and shrugged her Juno-like shoulders.

'Schreiermeyer,' she said, as if she had forgotten all about Margaret, 'if that lime-light man plays the moon in my eyes again I shall come out on the balcony with blue goggles. You shall hear the public then! It is perfectly outrageous! I am probably blind for life!'

She winked her big painted eyelids vigorously as if trying whether she could see at all. Margaret was looking at her, not sure that it was not all a dream, and wondering how it was possible that such a face and figure could still produce illusions of youth and grace when seen from the other side of the footlights. Yet Margaret herself had felt the illusion only a quarter of an hour ago. The paint on Madame Bonanni's face was a thick mask of grease, pigments and powder; the wig was the most evident wig that ever was; the figure seemed of gigantic girth compared with the woman's height, though that was by no means small; the eye lids were positively unwieldy with paint and the lashes looked like very thick black horsehairs stuck in with glue, in rows.

She shook her solid fist at Schreiermeyer and blinked violently again.

'It is outrageous!' she cried again. 'Do you understand?'

'Perfectly.'

'Schreiermeyer!' screamed Madame Bonanni. 'If you take no more notice of my complaints than that I refuse to finish the opera. I will not sing the rest of it! Find somebody else to go on. I am going home! Undress me!' she cried, turning to the three perspiring maids, not one of whom moved an inch at her summons. 'Oh, you won't? You are afraid of him? Ah, bah! I am not. Schreiermeyer, I refuse to go on; I absolutely refuse. Go away! I am going to undress.'

Thereupon she tore off her brown wig with a single movement and threw it across the room. It struck the wall with a thud and fell upon the floor, a limp and shapeless mass. The cadaverous maid instantly picked it up and began smoothing it. Madame Bonanni's own dark hair stood on end, giving her a decidedly wild look.

Schreiermeyer smiled perceptibly.

'Miss Donne will go on and sing the rest of the opera with pleasure, I have no doubt,' he said, gently, looking at Margaret.

The girl's heart stood still for an instant at this sudden proposal, before she realised that the manager was not in earnest.

'Of course she can sing it!' chimed in Madame De Rosa, understanding perfectly. 'But our dear friend is much too kind to disappoint the Parisian public,' she added, turning to the prima donna and speaking soothingly.

'Nothing can move that man!' cried Madame Bonanni, in a helpless tone.

'Nothing but the sound of your marvellous voice, my angel artist,' said Schreiermeyer. 'That always makes me weep, especially in the last act of this opera.'

Margaret could not fancy the manager blubbering, though she had more than once seen people in front with their handkerchiefs to their eyes during the scene in the tomb.

'Put my wig on,' said Madame Bonanni to the cadaverous maid, and she sat down in front of the toilet-table. 'We must talk business at once,' she continued, suddenly speaking with the utmost calm. 'The appointment is at my house, at ten o'clock to-morrow morning, Schreiermeyer. Miss Donne will sing for us. Bring a pianist and the Minister of Fine Arts if you can get him.'

'I have not the Minister of Fine Arts in my pocket, dearest lady,' observed the manager, 'but I will try. Why do you name such a very early hour?'

'Because I breakfast at eleven. Tell the Minister that the King is coming too. That will bring him. All Ministers are snobs.'

'The King?' repeated Margaret in surprise, and somewhat aghast.

'He is in Paris,' explained Madame Bonanni carelessly. 'He's an old friend of mine, and we dined together last night. I told him about you and he said he would come if he could but you never can count on those people.'

Margaret was too timid to ask what king Madame Bonanni was talking of, but she supposed her teacher would tell her in due time; and, after all, he might not come. Margaret hoped that he would, however, for she had never spoken to a royalty in her life and thought it would be very amusing to see a real, live king in the prima donna's eccentric surroundings.

'I shall turn you all out when you have heard her sing,' continued Madame Bonanni. You and I will lunch quite alone, my dear, and talk things over. There is one good point in Schreiermeyer's character. He never flatters unless he wants something. If he tells you that you sing well, it means an engagement next year. If he says you sing divinely, your _debut will be next week, or as soon as you can rehearse with a company.'

She touched up her cheeks with a hare's-foot while she talked.

'So that is settled,' she said, turning sharp round on the stool, which creaked loudly. 'Go home and go to bed, my children, unless you want to hear poor old Bonanni sing the rest of this stupid opera!'

She laughed, at herself perhaps; but suddenly in the tones Margaret heard a far-off suggestion of sadness that went to her heart very strangely. The singer turned her back again and seemed to pay no more attention to her visitors. Margaret came close to her, to say goodbye, and to thank her for all she was doing. The great artist looked up quietly into the young girl's eyes for a moment, and laid a hand on hers very kindly.

'Good-night, little Miss Donne,' she said, so low that the others could not hear distinctly. 'It is the setting sun that bids you good-night, child--you, the dawn and the sun of to-morrow!'

Margaret pressed the kind hand, and a moment later her teacher was hurrying her back through the dark wilderness of the stage to the brilliant house beyond. Schreiermeyer had already disappeared without so much as a word.

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CHAPTER IVMargaret was not quite sure how she could find her way to Madame Bonanni's dressing-room at the Opera, but she had no intention of missing the appointment. The most natural and easy way of managing matters would be to ask her teacher to go with her, and she could then spend the night at the latter's house. She accordingly stopped there before she went to the station. The elderly artist burst into tears on hearing the result of the interview with Madame Bonanni, and fell upon Margaret's neck. 'I knew it,' she said. 'I was sure of it, but I
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