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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 13
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The Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 13 Post by :blakekr Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :971

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The Serio-comic Governess - Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

Despite her private stage-fright, Nelly O'Neill, the new serio-comic, made a big hit. Her innocent roguery was captivating; her virginal freshness floated over the footlights, like a spring breeze through the smoky Hall.

"Well, you _are an all-round success," cried Jolly Jack Jenkins, pumping her hand off at the wings, amid a thunder of applause, encores, and whistles.

"You mean a Half-and-Half!" laughed Nelly through Eileen's tears. She had given herself to the audience, but how it had given itself in return, flashing back to her in electric waves its monstrous vitality, its apparently single life.

The Half-and-Half was one of those early Victorian halls of the people, with fixed stars and only a few meteors. The popular favourites changed their songs and their clothes at periodic intervals, but they would have lost favour if they had not remained the same throughout everything. A chairman with a hammer announced the turns, and condescendingly took champagne with anybody who paid for it. Eileen soon became an indispensable part of this smoky world. She signed an agreement at three guineas a week for three years, to perform only at the Half-and-Half. Fossy saw far. Eileen did not. She jumped for joy when she got beyond eyeshot. She felt herself jumping out of the governess-life. Second thoughts and soberer footsteps brought doubt. She had intended telling Mrs. Lee Carter as soon as the trial-performance was over, but now she hesitated and was lost. Half the charm lay in the secret adventure, the dare-devilry. Besides, as a governess she had a comfortable home and a respectable status, and she had already seen and divined enough of the world behind the footlights to shrink from being absorbed into it. What fun in the double life! She had never found a single life worth living. She would belong to two worlds--be literally Half-and-Half. Nelly O'Neill must only be born at twilight. But she felt she could not be out uniformly every evening without some explanation.

"Mrs. Lee Carter," she said, "I have to tell you of a peculiar chance of augmenting my income that has come to me."

Mrs. Lee Carter, wearing plumes and train for a court reception, paled. "You are not going to leave me!"

The naive exclamation strengthened Eileen's hand.

"I don't quite see how to do otherwise," she said boldly.

"Oh, dear, I wish I could afford more. I know you're worth it."

Eileen thought, "If you'd only give your guests good claret instead of bad champagne!" But she said, "You are very kind--you have always been most considerate."

The plumes wagged.

"I try to please all parties."

Nelly O'Neill thought, "And to give too many." Eileen said, "Yes, you've given me my evenings to myself as it is, and considering the new work is only in the evenings, I did think of running the two, but I'm afraid--"

"If we lightened your work a little--" interrupted Mrs. Lee Carter, eagerly.

"I shouldn't so much ask that as to have perfect freedom like a young man--a latch-key even." Never had Eileen looked more demure and Puritan.

"Oh, I hope you won't be working too late--"

"The people who go there are engaged in the daytime. I'd better be frank with you; it's an extremely unfashionable place towards the East End, and I quite understand you may not like me to take it. At the same time I shall never meet anybody who knows me. In fact, it's a dancing and singing place."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Lee Carter, blankly. "I didn't know you could teach dancing, too."

"You never asked me.... Of course, if you prefer it, I could come here as a day governess and leave after tea.... You see it's a longish journey home: I'm bound to be late...."

"What's the difference? Come and go as you please.... Of course, you won't mind using the back door when there's a party ... the servants...."

For the deception Eileen at first salved her conscience Irish-wise by sending every farthing to her mother under the deceiving pretext of rich private pupils. She would not even deduct for cabs. Sometimes she could not get an omnibus, but she almost preferred to walk till she was footsore, for both riding and walking were forms of penance. The stuffy omnibus interior after the smoky Hall was nauseating, and in those days no lady thought of climbing the steep ladder to the slanting roof. But it sometimes happened that a crawling cabman coming westward would invite her to a free ride, and Eileen would accept gratefully, and, moreover, gain from conversations with her drivers new material for her songs.

This period of her life was almost as amusing as she had anticipated; her only depressions came from the children of the footlights, and the necessity of adjusting herself superficially to her environment, under pain of unpopularity. Her isolation and the privacy of her home-life already made sufficiently for that. And to be disliked even by those she disliked Eileen disliked. Her nature needed to wallow in warm admiration. She got plenty.

When, fifteen months later, she agreed to pay Fossy a hundred pounds for modifying her contract so as to enable her to appear at other Halls, she said with a smile, "You deserve it. You are the only man at the Half-and-Half who hasn't made love to me."

Fossy grinned. "If I had known that, I should have demanded a larger compensation."

Even the bass chorister had not been able to resist proposing, though his grief at being refused was short-lived, for he died soon after by a fall from one of those giant wheels that were the saurians of the modern cycle. Eileen shed many a tear over Jolly Jack Jenkins.

With the growth of her popularity before and behind the footlights came heavier calls upon her geniality, and, like a hostess who tries to pay off her debts in one social lump sum, Eileen got "a Sunday out," and Nelly gave a lunch at a riverside hotel to a motley company of popular favourites. It was expensive; for the profession, even in those days, expected champagne. It was appallingly protracted; for the party, having no work to do that evening, showed no disposition to break up, and brandies-and-sodas succeeded one another in an aroma of masculine cigars and feminine cigarettes. It was noisy and hilarious, and gradually it became rowdy. The Singing Sisters sang, but not in duet. The Lion Comique, whose loyal melodies were on every barrel-organ, argued Republicanism and flourished that day's copy of Reynolds's Newspaper, The Beauteous Bessie Bilhook--"the Queen of Serio-Comics" was scandalously autobiographic, and the old plantation songster--looking unreal with his washed face--was with difficulty dissuaded from displaying his ability to dance on the table without smashing anything. The climax was reserved for the demure one-legged gymnast, who suddenly produced a pistol and discharged it in the air. When the panic subsided, he explained to the landlord and the company that he was "paying his shot."

"That's a hint for me to discharge the bill," said Nelly, adroitly, and, thanking everybody effusively for the happiness afforded her, she hurried home to Oxbridge Terrace, to wash it all away in nursery tea. The young Lee Carters made a restful spectacle with their shining innocent faces, and she almost wished they would never grow up.

As her success grew, offers from the pantomimes and even the legitimate stage began to reach her. But now she would not make the step. At the Halls she was her own mistress, able to arrange at her own convenience with orchestras. Even Rosalind would have meant long rehearsals and a complex interference with her governess-life.

At the theatres, too, to judge by all she heard, a sordid side of the profession was accentuated. The players played for their own hands, and even the greatest did not disdain to "queer" the effects of their subordinates, whenever such effects did not heighten their own. Hamlet had been known to be jealous of the ghost, and the success of his sepulchral bass. It was in fact a world of jostling jealousies, as hidden from the public as the prompter. In the Halls she was her own company and her own playwright and her own composer. She had her elbows free.

And even here Bessie Bilhook, whose vanity was a byword in Lower Bohemia, and who had arrogantly assumed the sovereignty of the Serio-Comics, refused to appear on the same programmes unless her name was printed twice as large as Nelly O'Neill's, and was further displayed on a board outside, alone in its nine-inch glory. Again, actresses were recognised by the newspapers; the Halls had as yet no status. Their performers were not so photographed; indeed, Eileen refused to sit. She desired this obscurer form of celebrity. If her fame should ever reach Mrs. Lee Carter, the game would be nearly up. Her poor mother might even suffer the shock of it; perhaps the professional future of her brothers would be injured. Her sedate life had grown as dear as her noisy life, she loved the transition to the innocent home circle.

Yet in this very domesticity lay a danger. It provoked her to an ever broader humour on the stage. She let herself go, like a swimmer emboldened by a boat behind. Eileen O'Keeffe she felt would rescue Nelly O'Neill if licence carried her too near the falls. It was so irresistibly seductive, this swift response of the audience to the wink of suggestion. Like a vast lyre, the Hall vibrated to the faintest breath of roguishness. Almost in contemptuous mockery one was tempted to experiment....

One day, in a sudden horror of herself, she pleaded illness and hurried back to her mother for a holiday.

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CHAPTER XVIIWould she ever get through her three Halls? It did not seem as if she had strength for the Half-and-Half itself. She nerved herself to the task, and knew, not merely from the shrieks of delight, that she had surpassed herself. Happy and flushed she flung herself into her waiting cab. She had the 9.45 turn at her second and most fashionable Hall--a Hall where the chairman had been replaced by programme numbers--and then would come her third and last appearance at 10.35. It was strange to think that in another hour Nelly O'Neill's career would be over. It seemed
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CHAPTER XIIEileen's next place was--as if by contrast--with a much more genteel family, and a much poorer, though it flew higher socially. It lived in a house, half in a fashionable London terrace, half in a shabby side street, and its abode was typical of its ambitions and its means. Mrs. Lee Carter drew the line clearly between herself and her governess, which was a blessing, for it meant Eileen's total exclusion from her social life, and Eileen's consequent enjoyment of her own evenings at home or abroad, as she wished. This unusual freedom compensated for the hard work of teaching
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