BY MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
It ought to be stated that the account of the play Elvira, given in Chapter VII. of the present story, is based upon an existing play, the work of a little known writer of the Romantic time, whose short, brilliant life came to a tragical end in 1836.
M. A. W.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
So many criticisms, not of a literary but of a personal kind, have been made on this little book since its appearance, that I may perhaps be allowed a few words of answer to them in the shape of a short preface to this new edition. It has been supposed that because the book describes a London world, which is a central and conspicuous world with interests and activities of a public and prominent kind, therefore all the characters in it are drawn from real persons who may be identified if the seeker is only clever enough. This charge of portraiture is constantly brought against the novelist, and it is always a difficult one to meet; but one may begin by pointing out that, in general, it implies a radical misconception of the story-teller's methods of procedure. An idea, a situation, is suggested to him by real life, he takes traits and peculiarities from this or that person whom he has known or seen, but this is all. When he comes to write—unless, of course, it is a case of malice and bad faith—the mere necessities of an imaginative effort oblige him to cut himself adrift from reality. His characters become to him the creatures of a dream, as vivid often as his waking life, but still a dream. And the only portraits he is drawing are portraits of phantoms, of which the germs were present in reality, but to which he himself has given voice, garb, and action.
So the present little sketch was suggested by real life; the first hint for it was taken from one of the lines of criticism—not that of the author—adopted towards the earliest performances of an actress who, coming among us as a stranger a year and a half ago, has won the respect and admiration of us all. The share in dramatic success which, in this country at any rate, belongs to physical gift and personal charm; the effect of the public sensitiveness to both, upon the artist and upon art; the difference between French and English dramatic ideals; these were the various thoughts suggested by the dramatic interests of the time. They were not new, they had been brought into prominence on more than one occasion during the last few years, and, in a general sense, they are common to the whole history of dramatic art. In dealing with them the problem of the story-teller was twofold—on the one hand, to describe the public in its two divisions of those who know or think they know, and those whose only wish is to feel and to enjoy; and on the other hand, to draw such an artist as should embody at once all the weakness and all the strength involved in the general situation. To do this, it was necessary to exaggerate and emphasise all the criticisms that had ever been brought against beauty in high dramatic place, while, at the same time, charm and loveliness were inseparable from the main conception. And further, it was sought to show that, although the English susceptibility to physical charm—susceptibility greater here, in matters of art, than it is in France—may have, and often does have, a hindering effect upon the artist, still, there are other influences in a great society which are constantly tending to neutralise this effect; in other words, that even in England an actress may win her way by youth and beauty, and still achieve by labour and desert another and a greater fame.
These were the ideas on which this little sketch was based, and in working them out the writer has not been conscious of any portraiture of individuals. Whatever attractiveness she may have succeeded in giving to her heroine is no doubt the shadow, so to speak, of a real influence so strong that no one writing of the English stage at the present moment can easily escape it; but otherwise everything is fanciful, the outcome, and indeed, too much the outcome, of certain critical ideas. And in the details of the story there has been no chronicling of persons; all the minor and subsidiary figures are imaginary, devised so as to illustrate to the best of the writer's ability the various influences which are continually brought to bear upon the artist in the London of to-day. There are traits and reminiscences of actual experience in the book,—what story was ever without them? But no living person has been drawn, and no living person has any just reason to think himself or herself aggrieved by any sentence which it contains.
It was the day of the private view at the Royal Academy. The great courtyard of Burlington House was full of carriages, and a continuous stream of guests was pressing up the red-carpeted stairs, over which presided some of the most imposing individuals known to the eyes of Londoners, second only to Her Majesty's beefeaters in glory of scarlet apparel. Inside, however, as it was not yet luncheon-time, the rooms were but moderately filled. It was possible to see the pictures, to appreciate the spring dresses, and to single out a friend even across the Long Gallery. The usual people were there: Academicians of the old school and Academicians of the new; R.A.'s coming from Kensington and the 'regions of culture,' and R.A.'s coming from more northerly and provincial neighbourhoods where art lives a little desolately and barely, in want of the graces and adornings with which 'culture' professes to provide her. There were politicians still capable—as it was only the first week of May—of throwing some zest into their amusements. There were art-critics who, accustomed as they were by profession to take their art in large and rapid draughts, had yet been unable to content themselves with the one meagre day allowed by the Academy for the examination of some 800 works, and were now eking out their notes of the day before by a few supplementary jottings taken in the intervals of conversation with their lady friends. There were the great dealers betraying in look and gait their profound, yet modest, consciousness that upon them rested the foundations of the artistic order, and that if, in a superficial conception of things, the star of an Academician differs from that of the man who buys his pictures in glory, the truly philosophic mind assesses matters differently. And, most important of all, there were the women, old and young, some in the full freshness of spring cottons, as if the east wind outside were not mocking the efforts of the May sun, and others still wrapped in furs, which showed a juster sense of the caprices of the English climate. Among them one might distinguish the usual shades and species: the familiar country cousin, gathering material for the over-awing of such of her neighbours as were unable to dip themselves every year in the stream of London; the women folk of the artist world, presenting greater varieties of type than the women of any other class can boast; and lastly, a sprinkling of the women of what calls itself 'London Society,' as well dressed, as well mannered, and as well provided with acquaintance as is the custom of their kind.
In one of the farther rooms, more scantily peopled as yet than the rest, a tall thin man was strolling listlessly from picture to picture, making every now and then hasty references to his catalogue, but in general eyeing all he saw with the look of one in whom familiarity with the sight before him had bred weariness, if not contempt. He was a handsome man, with a broad brow and a pleasant gentleness of expression. The eyes were fine and thoughtful, and there was a combination of intellectual force with great delicacy of line in the contour of the head and face which was particularly attractive, especially to women of the more cultivated and impressionable sort. His thin grayish hair was rather long—not of that pronounced length which inevitably challenges the decision of the bystander as to whether the wearer be fool or poet, but still long enough to fall a little carelessly round the head and so take off from the spruce conventional effect of the owner's irreproachable dress and general London air.
Mr. Eustace Kendal—to give the person we have been describing his name—was not apparently in a good temper with his surroundings. He was standing with a dissatisfied expression before a Venetian scene drawn by a brilliant member of a group of English artists settled on foreign soil and trained in foreign methods.
'Not so good as last year,' he was remarking to himself. 'Vulgar drawing, vulgar composition, hasty work everywhere. It is success spoils all these men—success and the amount of money there is going. The man who painted this didn't get any pleasure out of it. But it's the same all round. It is money and luxury and the struggle to live which are driving us all on and killing the artist's natural joy in his work. And presently, as that odd little Frenchman said to me last year, we shall have dropped irretrievably into the "lowest depth of mediocrity."'
'Kendal!' said an eager voice close to his ear, while a hand was laid on his arm, 'do you know that girl?'
Kendal turned in astonishment and saw a short oldish man, in whom he recognised a famous artist, standing by, his keen mobile face wearing an expression of strong interest and inquiry.
'What girl?' he asked, with a smile, shaking his questioner by the hand.
'That girl in black, standing by Orchardson's picture. Why, you must know her by sight! It's Miss Bretherton, the actress. Did you ever see such beauty? I must get somebody to introduce me to her. There's nothing worth looking at since she came in. But, by ill luck, nobody here seems to know her.'
Eustace Kendal, to whom the warm artist's temperament of his friend was well known, turned with some amusement towards the picture named, and noticed that flutter in the room which shows that something or some one of interest is present. People trying to look unconcerned, and catalogue in hand, were edging towards the spot where the lady in black stood, glancing alternately at her and at the pictures, in the manner of those equally determined to satisfy their curiosity and their sense of politeness. The lady in question, meanwhile, conscious that she was being looked at, but not apparently disturbed by it, was talking to another lady, the only person with her, a tall, gaunt woman, also dressed in black and gifted abundantly with the forbidding aspect which beauty requires in its duenna.
Kendal could see nothing more at first than a tall, slender figure, a beautiful head, and a delicate white profile, in flashing contrast with its black surroundings, and with lines of golden brown hair. But in profile and figure there was an extraordinary distinction and grace which reconciled him to his friend's eagerness and made him wish for the beauty's next movement. Presently she turned and caught the gaze of the two men full upon her. Her eyes dropped a little, but there was nothing ill-bred or excessive in her self-consciousness. She took her companion's arm with a quiet movement, and drew her towards one of the striking pictures of the year, some little way off. The two men also turned and walked away.
'I never saw such beauty as that before,' said the artist, with emphasis. 'I must find some one who knows her, and get the chance of seeing that face light up, else I shall go home—one may as well. These daubs are not worth the trouble of considering now!'
'See what it is to be an "ideal painter,"' said Kendal, laughing. 'At home one paints river goddesses, and tree-nymphs, and such like remote creatures, and abroad one falls a victim to the first well-dressed, healthy-looking girl—chaperone, bonnet, and all.'
'Show me another like her,' said his friend warmly. 'I tell you they're not to be met with like that every day. Je me connais en beaute, my dear fellow, and I never saw such perfection, both of line and colour, as that. It is extraordinary; it excites one as an artist. Look, is that Wallace now going up to her?'
Kendal turned and saw a short fair man, with a dry keen American face, walk up to the beauty and speak to her. She greeted him cordially, with a beaming smile and bright emphatic movements of the head, and the three strolled on.
'Yes, that is Edward Wallace,—very much in it, apparently. That is the way Americans have. They always know everybody it's desirable to know. But now's your chance, Forbes. Stroll carelessly past them, catch Wallace's eye, and the thing is done.'
Mr. Forbes had already dropped Kendal's arm, and was sauntering across the room towards the chatting trio. Kendal watched the scene from a distance with some amusement; saw his friend brush carelessly past the American, look back, smile, stop, and hold out his hand; evidently a whisper passed between them, for the next moment Mr. Forbes was making a low bow to the beauty, and immediately afterwards Kendal saw his fine gray head and stooping shoulders disappear into the next room, side by side with Miss Bretherton's erect and graceful figure.
Kendal betook himself once more to the pictures, and, presently finding some acquaintances, made a rapid tour of the rooms with them, parting with them at the entrance that he might himself go back and look at two or three things in the sculpture room which he had been told were important and promising. There he came across the American, Edward Wallace, who at once took him by the arm with the manner of an old friend and a little burst of laughter.
'So you saw the introduction? What a man is Forbes! He is as young still as he was at eighteen. I envy him. He took Miss Bretherton right round, talked to her of all his favourite hobbies, looked at her in a way which would have been awkward if it had been anybody else but such a gentlemanly maniac as Forbes, and has almost made her promise to sit to him. Miss Bretherton was a little bewildered, I think. She is so new to London that she doesn't know who's who yet in the least. I had to take her aside and explain to her Forbes's honours; then she fired up—there is a naive hero-worship about her just now that she is fresh from a colony—and made herself as pleasant to him as a girl could be. I prophesy Forbes will think of nothing else for the season.'
'Well, she's a brilliant creature,' said Kendal. 'It's extraordinary how she shone out beside the pretty English girls about her. It is an intoxicating possession for a woman, such beauty as that; it's like royalty; it places the individual under conditions quite unlike those of common mortals. I suppose it's that rather than any real ability as an actress that has made her a success? I noticed the papers said as much—some more politely than others.'
'Oh, she's not much of an actress; she has no training, no finesse. But you'll see, she'll be the great success of the season. She has wonderful grace on the stage, and a fine voice in spite of tricks. And then her Wesen is so attractive; she is such a frank, unspoilt, good-hearted creature. Her audience falls in love with her, and that goes a long way. But I wish she had had a trifle more education and something worth calling a training. Her manager, Robinson, talks of her attempting all the great parts; but it's absurd. She talks very naively and prettily about "her art"; but really she knows no more about it than a baby, and it is perhaps part of her charm that she is so unconscious of her ignorance.'
'It is strange how little critical English audiences are,' said Kendal. 'I believe we are the simplest people in the world. All that we ask is that our feelings should be touched a little, but whether by the art or the artist doesn't matter. She has not been long playing in London, has she?'
'Only a few weeks. It's only about two months since she landed from Jamaica. She has a curious history, if you care to hear it; I don't think I've seen you at all since I made friends with her?'
'No,' said Kendal; 'I was beginning to suspect that something absorbing had got hold of you. I've looked for you two or three times at the club, and could not find you.'
'Oh, it's not Miss Bretherton that has taken up my time. She's so busy that nobody can see much of her. But I have taken her and her people out, two or three times, sight-seeing, since they came—Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, and so forth. She is very keen about everything, and the Worralls—her uncle and aunt—stick to her pretty closely.'
'Where does she come from?'
'Well, her father was the Scotch overseer of a sugar plantation not far from Kingston, and he married an Italian, one of your fair Venetian type—a strange race-combination; I suppose it's the secret of the brilliancy and out-of-the-wayness of the girl's beauty. Her mother died when she was small, and the child grew up alone. Her father, however, seems to have been a good sort of man, and to have looked after her. Presently she drew the attention of an uncle, a shopkeeper in Kingston, and a shrewd, hard, money-making fellow, who saw there was something to be made out of her. She had already shown a turn for reciting, and had performed at various places—in the schoolroom belonging to the estate, and so on. The father didn't encourage her fancy for it, naturally, being Scotch and Presbyterian. However, he died of fever, and then the child at sixteen fell into her uncle's charge. He seems to have seen at once exactly what line to take. To put it cynically, I imagine he argued something like this: "Beauty extraordinary—character everything that could be desired—talent not much. So that the things to stake on are the beauty and the character, and let the talent take care of itself." Anyhow, he got her on to the Kingston theatre—a poor little place enough—and he and the aunt, that sour-looking creature you saw with her, looked after her like dragons. Naturally, she was soon the talk of Kingston: what with her looks and her grace and the difficulty of coming near her, the whole European society, the garrison, Government House, and all, were at her feet. Then the uncle played his cards for a European engagement. You remember that Governor Rutherford they had a little time ago? the writer of that little set of drawing-room plays—Nineteenth Century Interludes, I think he called them? It was his last year, and he started for home while Isabel Bretherton was acting at Kingston. He came home full of her, and, knowing all the theatrical people here, he was able to place her at once. Robinson decided to speculate in her, telegraphed out for her, and here she is, uncle, aunt, and invalid sister into the bargain.'
'Oh, she has a sister?'
'Yes; a little, white, crippled thing, peevish—cripples generally are—but full of a curious force of some hidden kind. Isabel is very good to her, and rather afraid of her. It seems to me that she is afraid of all her belongings. I believe they put upon her, and she has as much capacity as anybody I ever knew for letting herself be trampled upon.'
'What, that splendid, vivacious creature!' said Kendal incredulously. 'I think I'd back her for holding her own.'
'Ah, well, you see,' said the American, with the quiet superiority of a three weeks' acquaintance, 'I know something of her by now, and she's not quite what you might think her at first sight. However, whether she is afraid of them or not, it's to be hoped they will take care of her. Naturally, she has a splendid physique, but it seems to me that London tries her. The piece they have chosen for her is a heavy one, and then of course society is down upon her, and in a few weeks she'll be the rage.'
'I haven't seen her at all,' said Kendal, beginning perhaps to be a little bored with the subject of Miss Bretherton, and turning, eye-glass in hand, towards the sculpture. 'Come and take me some evening.'
'By all means. But you must come and meet the girl herself at my sister's next Friday. She will be there at afternoon tea. I told Agnes I should ask anybody I liked. I warned her—you know her little weaknesses!—that she had better be first in the field: a month hence, it will be impossible to get hold of Miss Bretherton at all.'
'Then I'll certainly come, and do my worshipping before the crowd collects,' said Kendal, adding, as he half-curiously shifted his eye-glass so as to take in Wallace's bronzed, alert countenance, 'How did you happen to know her?'
'Rutherford introduced me. He's an old friend of mine.'
'Well,' said Kendal, moving off, 'Friday, then. I shall be very glad to see Mrs. Stuart; it's ages since I saw her last.'
The American nodded cordially to him, and walked away. He was one of those pleasant, ubiquitous people who know every one and find time for everything—a well-known journalist, something of an artist, and still more of a man of the world, who went through his London season with some outward grumbling, but with a real inward zest such as few popular diners-out are blessed with. That he should have attached himself to the latest star was natural enough. He was the most discreet and profitable of cicerones, with a real talent for making himself useful to nice people. His friendship for Miss Bretherton gave her a certain stamp in Kendal's eyes, for Wallace had a fastidious taste in personalities and seldom made a mistake.
Kendal himself walked home, busy with very different thoughts, and was soon established at his writing-table in his high chambers overlooking an inner court of the Temple. It was a bright afternoon; the spring sunshine on the red roofs opposite was clear and gay; the old chimney-stacks, towering into the pale blue sky, threw sharp shadows on the rich red and orange surface of the tiles. Below, the court was half in shadow, and utterly quiet and deserted. To the left there was a gleam of green, atoning for its spring thinness and scantiness by a vivid energy of colour; while straight across the court, beyond the rich patchwork of the roofs and the picturesque outlines of the chimneys, a delicate piece of white stone-work rose into air—the spire of one of Wren's churches, as dainty, as perfect, and as fastidiously balanced as the hand of man could leave it.
Inside, the room was such as fitted a studious bachelor of means. The book-cases on the walls held old college classics and law-books underneath, and above a miscellaneous literary library, of which the main bulk was French, while the side-wings, so to speak, had that tempting miscellaneous air—here a patch of German, there an island of Italian; on this side rows of English poets, on the other an abundance of novels of all languages—which delights the fond heart of the book-lover. The pictures were mostly autotypes and photographs from subjects of Italian art, except in one corner, where a fine little collection of French historical engravings completely covered the wall, and drew a visitor's attention by the brilliancy of their black and white. On the writing-table were piles of paper-covered French books, representing for the most part the palmy days of the Romantics, though every here and there were intervening strata of naturalism, balanced in their turn by recurrent volumes of Sainte-Beuve. The whole had a studious air. The books were evidently collected with a purpose, and the piles of orderly MSS. lying on the writing-table seemed to sum up and explain their surroundings.
The only personal ornament of the room was a group of photographs on the mantelpiece. Two were faded and brown, and represented Kendal's parents, both of whom had been dead some years. The other was a large cabinet photograph of a woman no longer very young—a striking-looking woman, with a fine worn face and a general air of distinction and character. There was a strong resemblance between her features and those of Eustace Kendal, and she was indeed his elder and only sister, the wife of a French senator, and her brother's chief friend and counsellor. Madame de Chateauvieux was a very noticeable person, and her influence over Eustace had been strong ever since their childish days. She was a woman who would have justified a repetition in the present day of Sismondi's enthusiastic estimate of the women of the First Empire. She had that melange du meilleur ton, 'with the purest elegance of manner, and a store of varied information, with vivacity of impression and delicacy of feeling, which,' as he declared to Madame d'Albany, 'belongs only to your sex, and is found in its perfection only in the best society of France.'
In the days when she and Eustace had been the only children of a distinguished and wealthy father, a politician of some fame, and son-in-law to the Tory premier of his young days, she had always led and influenced her brother. He followed her admiringly through her London seasons, watching the impression she made, triumphing in her triumphs, and at home discussing every new book with her and sharing, at least in his college vacations, the secretary's work for their father, which she did excellently, and with a quick, keen, political sense which Eustace had never seen in any other woman. She was handsome in her own refined and delicate way, especially at night, when the sparkle of her white neck and arms and the added brightness of her dress gave her the accent and colour she was somewhat lacking in at other times. Naturally, she was in no want of suitors, for she was rich and her father was influential, but she said 'No' many times, and was nearly thirty before M. de Chateauvieux, the first secretary of the French Embassy, persuaded her to marry him. Since then she had filled an effective place in Parisian society. Her husband had abandoned diplomacy for politics, in which his general tendencies were Orleanist, while in literature he was well known as a constant contributor to the Revue des Deux Mondes. He and his wife maintained an interesting, and in its way influential, salon, which provided a meeting ground for the best English and French society, and showed off at once the delicate quality of Madame de Chateauvieux's intelligence and the force and kindliness of her womanly tact.
Shortly after her marriage the father and mother died, within eighteen months of each other, and Eustace found his lot in life radically changed. He had been his father's secretary after leaving college, which prevented his making any serious efforts to succeed at the bar, and in consequence his interest, both of head and heart, had been more concentrated than is often the case with a young man within the walls of his home. He had admired his father sincerely, and the worth of his mother's loquacious and sometimes meddlesome tenderness he never realised fully till he had lost it. When he was finally alone, it became necessary for him to choose a line in life. His sister and he divided his father's money between them, and Eustace found himself with a fortune such as in the eyes of most of his friends constituted a leading of Providence towards two things—marriage and a seat in Parliament. However, fortunately, his sister, the only person to whom he applied for advice, was in no hurry to press a decision in either case upon him. She saw that without the stimulus of the father's presence, Eustace's interest in politics was less real than his interest in letters, nor did the times seem to her propitious to that philosophic conservatism which might be said to represent the family type of mind. So she stirred him up to return to some of the projects of his college days when he and she were first bitten with a passion for that great, that fascinating French literature which absorbs, generation after generation, the interests of two-thirds of those who are sensitive to the things of letters. She suggested a book to him which took his fancy, and in planning it something of the old zest of life returned to him. Moreover, it was a book which required him to spend a part of every year in Paris, and the neighbourhood of his sister was now more delightful to him than ever.
So, after a time, he settled down contentedly in his London chambers with his books about him, and presently found that glow of labour stealing over him which is at once the stimulus and the reward of every true son of knowledge. His book reconciled him to life again, and soon he was as often seen in the common haunts of London society as before. He dined out, he went to the theatre, he frequented his club like other men, and every year he spent three of the winter months in Paris, living in the best French world, talking as he never talked in London, and cultivating, whether in the theatre or in the salons of his sister's friends or in the studios of some of the more eminent of French artists, a fastidious critical temper, which was rapidly becoming more and more exacting, more and more master of the man.
Now, on this May afternoon, as he settled himself down to his work, it would have given any of those who liked Eustace Kendal—and they were many—pleasure to see how the look of fatigue with which he had returned from his round of the Academy faded away, how he shook back the tumbling gray locks from his eyes with the zest and the eagerness of one setting forth to battle, and how, as time passed on and the shadows deepened on the white spire opposite, the contentment of successful labour showed itself in the slow unconscious caress which fell upon the back of the sleeping cat curled up in the chair beside him, or in the absent but still kindly smile with which he greeted the punctual entrance of the servant, who at five o'clock came to put tea and the evening paper beside him and to make up the fire, which crackled on with cheery companionable sounds through the lamp-lit evening and far into the night.
Two or three days afterwards, Kendal, in looking over his engagement-book, in which the entries were methodically kept, noticed 'Afternoon tea, Mrs. Stuart's, Friday,' and at once sent off a note to Edward Wallace, suggesting that they should go to the theatre together on Thursday evening to see Miss Bretherton, 'for, as you will see,' he wrote, 'it will be impossible for me to meet her with a good conscience unless I have done my duty beforehand by going to see her perform.' To this the American replied by a counter proposal. 'Miss Bretherton,' he wrote, 'offers my sister and myself a box for Friday night; it will hold four or five; you must certainly be of the party, and I shall ask Forbes.'
Kendal felt himself a little entrapped, and would have preferred to see the actress under conditions more favourable to an independent judgment, but he was conscious that a refusal would be ungracious, so he accepted, and prepared himself to meet the beauty in as sympathetic a frame of mind as possible.
On Friday afternoon, after a long and fruitful day's work, he found himself driving westward towards the old-fashioned Kensington house of which Mrs. Stuart, with her bright, bird-like, American ways, had succeeded in making a considerable social centre. His mind was still full of his work, phrases of Joubert or of Stendhal seemed to be still floating about him, and certain subtleties of artistic and critical speculation were still vaguely arguing themselves out within him as he sped westward, drawing in the pleasant influences of the spring sunshine, and delighting his eyes in the May green which was triumphing more and more every day over the grayness of London, and would soon have reached that lovely short-lived pause of victory which is all that summer can hope to win amid the dust and crowd of a great city.
Kendal was in that condition which is proper to men possessed of the true literary temperament, when the first fervour of youth for mere living is gone, when the first crude difficulties of accumulation are over, and when the mind, admitted to regions of an ampler ether and diviner air than any she has inhabited before, feels the full charm and spell of man's vast birthright of knowledge, and is seized with subtler curiosities and further-reaching desires than anything she has yet been conscious of. The world of fact and of idea is open, and the explorer's instruments are as perfect as they can be made. The intoxication of entrance is full upon him, and the lassitude which is the inevitable Nemesis of an unending task, and the chill which sooner or later descends upon every human hope, are as yet mere names and shadows, counting for nothing in the tranquil vista of his life, which seems to lie spread out before him. It is a rare state, for not many men are capable of the apprenticeship which leads to it, and a breath of hostile circumstance may put an end to it; but in its own manner and degree, and while it lasts, it is one of the golden states of consciousness, and a man enjoying it feels this mysterious gift of existence to have been a kindly boon from some beneficent power.
Arrived at Mrs. Stuart's, Kendal found a large gathering already filling the pleasant low rooms looking out upon trees at either end, upon which Mrs. Stuart had impressed throughout the stamp of her own keen little personality. She was competent in all things—competent in her criticism of a book, and more than competent in all that pertained to the niceties of house management. Her dinner-parties, of which each was built up from foundation to climax with the most delicate skill and unity of plan; her pretty dresses, in which she trailed about her soft-coloured rooms; her energy, her kindliness, and even the evident but quite innocent pursuit of social perfection in which she delighted—all made her popular; and it was not difficult for her to gather together whom she would when she wished to launch a social novelty. On the present occasion she was very much in her element. All around her were people more or less distinguished in the London world; here was an editor, there an artist; a junior member of the Government chatted over his tea with a foreign Minister, and a flow of the usual London chatter of a superior kind was rippling through the room when Kendal entered.
Mrs. Stuart put him in the way of a chair and of abundant chances of conversation, and then left him with a shrug of her shoulders and a whisper, 'The beauty is shockingly late! Tell me what I shall do if all these people are disappointed.' In reality, Mrs. Stuart was beginning to be restless. Kendal had himself arrived very late, and, as the talk flowed faster, and the room filled fuller of guests eager for the new sensation which had been promised them, the spirits of the little hostess began to sink. The Minister had surreptitiously looked at his watch, and a tiresome lady friend had said good-bye in a voice which might have been lower, and with a lament which might have been spared. Mrs. Stuart set great store upon the success of her social undertakings, and to gather a crowd of people to meet the rising star of the season, and then to have to send them home with only tea and talk to remember, was one of those failures which no one with any self-respect should allow themselves to risk.
However, fortune was once more kind to one of her chief favourites. Mrs. Stuart was just listening with a tired face to the well-meant, but depressing condolences of the barrister standing by her, who was describing to her the 'absurd failure' of a party to meet the leading actress of the Comedie Francaise, to which he had been invited in the previous season, when the sound of wheels was heard outside. Mrs. Stuart made a quick step forward, leaving her Job's comforter planted in the middle of his story; the hum of talk dropped in an instant, and the crowd about the door fell hastily back as it was thrown open and Miss Bretherton entered.
What a glow and radiance of beauty entered the room with her! She came in rapidly, her graceful head thrown eagerly back, her face kindling and her hands outstretched as she caught sight of Mrs. Stuart. There was a vigour and splendour of life about her that made all her movements large and emphatic, and yet, at the same time, nothing could exceed the delicate finish of the physical structure itself. What was indeed characteristic in her was this combination of extraordinary perfectness of detail, with a flash, a warmth, a force of impression, such as often raises the lower kinds of beauty into excellence and picturesqueness, but is seldom found in connection with those types where the beauty is, as it were, sufficient in and by itself, and does not need anything but its own inherent harmonies of line and hue to impress itself on the beholders.
There were some, indeed, who maintained that the smallness and delicacy of her features was out of keeping with her stature and her ample gliding motions. But here, again, the impression of delicacy was transformed half way into one of brilliancy by the large hazel eyes and the vivid whiteness of the skin. Kendal watched her from his corner, where his conversation with two musical young ladies had been suddenly suspended by the arrival of the actress, and thought that his impression of the week before had been, if anything, below the truth.
'She comes into the room well, too,' he said to himself critically; 'she is not a mere milkmaid; she has some manner, some individuality. Ah, now Fernandez'—naming the Minister—'has got hold of her. Then, I suppose, Rushbrook (the member of the Government) will come next, and we commoner mortals in our turn. What absurdities these things are!'
His reflections, however, were stopped by the exclamations of the girls beside him, who were already warm admirers of Miss Bretherton, and wild with enthusiasm at finding themselves in the same room with her. They discovered that he was going to see her in the evening; they envied him, they described the play to him, they dwelt in superlatives on the crowded state of the theatre and on the plaudits which greeted Miss Bretherton's first appearance in the ballroom scene in the first act, and they allowed themselves—being aesthetic damsels robed in sober greenish-grays—a gentle lament over the somewhat violent colouring of one of the actress's costumes, while all the time keeping their eyes furtively fixed on the gleaming animated profile and graceful shoulders over which, in the entrance of the second drawing-room, the Minister's gray head was bending.
Mrs. Stuart did her duty bravely. Miss Bretherton had announced to her, with a thousand regrets, that she had only half an hour to give. 'We poor professionals, you know, must dine at four. That made me late, and now I find I am such a long way from home that six is the latest moment I can stay.' So that Mrs. Stuart was put to it to get through all the introductions she had promised. But she performed her task without flinching, killing remorselessly each nascent conversation in the bud, giving artist, author, or member of Parliament his proper little sentence of introduction, and at last beckoning to Eustace Kendal, who left his corner feeling society to be a foolish business, and wishing the ordeal were over.
Miss Bretherton smiled at him as she had smiled at all the others, and he sat down for his three minutes on the chair beside her.
'I hear you are satisfied with your English audiences, Miss Bretherton,' he began at once, having prepared himself so far. 'To-night I am to have the pleasure for the first time of making one of your admirers.'
'I hope it will please you,' she said, with a shyness that was still bright and friendly. 'You will be sure to come and see me afterwards? I have been arranging it with Mrs. Stuart. I am never fit to talk to afterwards, I get so tired. But it does one good to see one's friends; it makes one forget the theatre a little before going home.'
'Do you find London very exciting?'
'Yes, very. People have been so extraordinarily kind to me, and it is all such a new experience after that little place Kingston. I should have my head turned, I think,' she added, with a happy little laugh, 'but that when one cares about one's art one is not likely to think too much of one's self. I am always despairing over what there is still to do, and what one may have done seems to make no matter.'
She spoke with a pretty humility, evidently meaning what she said, and yet there was such a delightful young triumph in her manner, such an invulnerable consciousness of artistic success, that Kendal felt a secret stir of amusement as he recalled the criticisms which among his own set he had most commonly heard applied to her.
'Yes, indeed,' he answered pleasantly. 'I suppose every artist feels the same. We all do if we are good for anything—we who scribble as well as you who act.'
'Oh yes,' she said, with kindly, questioning eyes, 'you write a great deal? I know; Mr. Wallace told me. He says you are so learned, and that your book will be splendid. It must be grand to write books. I should like it, I think, better than acting. You need only depend on yourself; but in acting you're always depending on some one else, and you get in such a rage when all your own grand ideas are spoilt because the leading gentleman won't do anything different from what he has been used to, or the next lady wants to show off, or the stage manager has a grudge against you! Something always happens.'
'Apparently the only thing that always happens to you is success,' said Kendal, rather hating himself for the cheapness of the compliment. 'I hear wonderful reports of the difficulty of getting a seat at the Calliope; and his friends tell me that Mr. Robinson looks ten years younger. Poor man! it is time that fortune smiled on him.'
'Yes, indeed; he had a bad time last year. That Miss Harwood, the American actress, that they thought would be such a success, didn't come off at all. She didn't hit the public. It doesn't seem to me that the English public is hard to please. At that wretched little theatre in Kingston I wasn't nearly so much at my ease as I am here. Here one can always do one's best and be sure that the audience will appreciate it. I have all sorts of projects in my head. Next year I shall have a theatre of my own, I think, and then—'
'And then we shall see you in all the great parts?'
The beauty had just begun her answer when Kendal became conscious of Mrs. Stuart standing beside him, with another aspirant at her elbow, and nothing remained for him but to retire with a hasty smile and handshake, Miss Bretherton brightly reminding him that they should meet again.
A few minutes afterwards there was once more a general flutter in the room. Miss Bretherton was going. She came forward in her long flowing black garments, holding Mrs. Stuart by the hand, the crowd dividing as she passed. On her way to the door stood a child, Mrs. Stuart's youngest, looking at her with large wondering brown eyes, and finger on lip. The actress suddenly stooped to her, lifted her up with the ease of physical strength into the midst of her soft furs and velvets, and kissed her with a gracious queenliness. The child threw its little white arms around her, smiled upon her, and smoothed her hair, as though to assure itself that the fairy princess was real. Then it struggled down, and in another minute the bright vision was gone, and the crowded room seemed to have grown suddenly dull and empty.
'That was prettily done,' said Edward Wallace to Kendal as they stood together looking on. 'In another woman those things would be done for effect, but I don't think she does them for effect. It is as though she felt herself in such a warm and congenial atmosphere, she is so sure of herself and her surroundings, that she is able to give herself full play, to follow every impulse as it rises. There is a wonderful absence of mauvaise honte about her, and yet I believe that, little as she knows of her own deficiencies, she is really modest—'
'Very possibly,' said Kendal; 'it is a curious study, a character taken so much au naturel, and suddenly transported into the midst of such a London triumph as this. I have certainly been very much attracted, and feel inclined to quarrel with you for having run her down. I believe I shall admire her more than you do to-night.'
'I only hope you may,' said the American cordially; 'I am afraid, however, that from any standard that is worth using there is not much to be said for her as an actress. But as a human being she is very nearly perfection.'
The afternoon guests departed, and just as the last had gone, Mr. Forbes was announced. He came in in a bad temper, having been delayed by business, and presently sat down to dinner with Mrs. Stuart and Wallace and Kendal in a very grumbling frame of mind. Mr. Stuart, a young and able lawyer, in the first agonies of real success at the bar, had sent word that he could not reach home till late.
'I don't know, I'm sure, what's the good of going to see that girl with you two carping fellows,' he began, combatively, over his soup. 'She won't suit you, and you'll only spoil Mrs. Stuart's pleasure and mine.'
'My dear Forbes,' said Wallace in his placid undisturbed way, 'you will see I shall behave like an angel. I shall allow myself no unpleasant remarks, and I shall make as much noise as anybody in the theatre.'
'That's all very well; but if you don't say it, Kendal will look it; and I don't know which is the most damping.'
'Mrs. Stuart, you shall be the judge of our behaviour,' said Kendal, smiling—he and Forbes were excellent friends. 'Forbes is not in a judicial frame of mind, but we will trust you to be fair. I suppose, Forbes, we may be allowed a grumble or two at Hawes if you shut our mouths on the subject of Miss Bretherton.'
'Hawes does his best,' said Forbes, with a touch of obstinacy. 'He looks well, he strides well, he is a fine figure of a man with a big bullying voice; I don't know what more you want in a German prince. It is this everlasting hypercriticism which spoils all one's pleasure and frightens all the character out of the artists!'
At which Mrs. Stuart laughed, and, woman-like, observed that she supposed it was only people who, like Forbes, had succeeded in disarming the critics, who could afford to scoff at them,—a remark which drew a funny little bow, half-petulant, half-pleased, out of the artist, in whom one of the strongest notes of character was his susceptibility to the attentions of women.
'You've seen her already, I believe,' said Wallace to Forbes. 'I think Miss Bretherton told me you were at the Calliope on Monday.'
'Yes, I was. Well, as I tell you, I don't care to be critical. I don't want to whittle away the few pleasures that this dull life can provide me with by this perpetual discontent with what's set before one. Why can't you eat and be thankful? To look at that girl is a liberal education; she has a fine voice too, and her beauty, her freshness, the energy of life in her, give me every sort of artistic pleasure. What a curmudgeon I should be—what a grudging, ungrateful fellow, if, after all she has done to delight me, I should abuse her because she can't speak out her tiresome speeches—which are of no account, and don't matter, to my impression at all,—as well as one of your thin, French, snake-like creatures who have nothing but their art, as you call it; nothing but what they have been carefully taught, nothing but what they have laboriously learnt with time and trouble, to depend upon!'
Having delivered himself of this tirade, the artist threw himself back in his chair, tossed back his gray hair from his glowing black eyes, and looked defiance at Kendal, who was sitting opposite.
'But, after all,' said Kendal, roused, 'these tiresome speeches are her metier; it's her business to speak them, and to speak them well. You are praising her for qualities which are not properly dramatic at all. In your studio they would be the only thing that a man need consider; on the stage they naturally come second.'
'Ah, well,' said Forbes, falling to upon his dinner again at a gentle signal from Mrs. Stuart that the carriage would soon be round, 'I knew very well how you and Wallace would take her. You and I will have to defend each other, Mrs. Stuart, against those two shower-baths, and when we go to see her afterwards I shall be invaluable, for I shall be able to save Kendal and Wallace the humbug of compliments.'
Whereupon the others protested that they would on no account be deprived of their share of the compliments, and Wallace especially laid it down that a man would be a poor creature who could not find smooth things to say upon any conceivable occasion to Isabel Bretherton. Besides, he saw her every day, and was in excellent practice. Forbes looked a little scornful, but at this point Mrs. Stuart succeeded in diverting his attention to his latest picture, and the dinner flowed on pleasantly till the coffee was handed and the carriage announced.
On their arrival at the theatre armed with Miss Bretherton's order, Mrs. Stuart's party found themselves shown into a large roomy box close to the stage—too close, indeed, for purposes of seeing well. The house was already crowded, and Kendal noticed, as he scanned the stalls and boxes through his opera-glass, that it contained a considerable sprinkling of notabilities of various kinds. It was a large new theatre, which hitherto had enjoyed but a very moderate share of popular favour, so that the brilliant and eager crowd with which it was now filled was in itself a sufficient testimony to the success of the actress who had wrought so great a transformation.
'What an experience this is for a girl of twenty-one,' whispered Kendal to Mrs. Stuart, who was comfortably settled in the farther corner of the box, her small dainty figure set off by the crimson curtains behind it. 'One would think that an actor's life must stir the very depths of a man or woman's individuality, that it must call every power into action, and strike sparks out of the dullest.'
'Yes; but how seldom it is so!'
'Well, in England, at any rate, the fact is, their training is so imperfect they daren't let themselves go. It's only when a man possesses the lower secrets of his art perfectly that he can aim at the higher. But the band is nearly through the overture. Just tell me before the curtain goes up something about the play. I have only very vague ideas about it. The scene is laid at Berlin?'
'Yes; in the Altes Schloss at Berlin. The story is based upon the legend of the White Lady.'
'What? the warning phantom of the Hohenzollerns?'
Mrs. Stuart nodded. 'A Crown-Prince of Prussia is in love with the beautiful Countess Hilda von Weissenstein. Reasons of State, however, oblige him to throw her over and to take steps towards marriage with a Princess of Wuertemberg. They have just been betrothed when the Countess, mad with jealousy, plays the part of the White Lady and appears to the Princess, to try and terrify her out of the proposed marriage.'
'And the Countess is Miss Bretherton?'
'Yes. Of course the malicious people say that her get-up as the White Lady is really the raison d'etre of the piece. But hush! there is the signal. Make up your mind to be bored by the Princess; she is one of the worst sticks I ever saw!'
The first scene represented the ballroom at the Schloss, or rather the royal anteroom, beyond which the vista of the ballroom opened. The Prussian and Wuertemberg royalties had not yet arrived, with the exception of the Prince Wilhelm, on whose matrimonial prospects the play was to turn. He was engaged in explaining the situation to his friend, Waldemar von Rothenfels, the difficulties in which he was placed, his passion for the Countess Hilda, the political necessities which forced him to marry a daughter of the House of Wuertemberg, the pressure brought to bear upon him by his parents, and his own despair at having to break the news to the Countess.
The story is broken off by the arrival of the royalties, including the pink-and-white maiden who is to be Prince Wilhelm's fate, and the royal quadrille begins. The Prince leads his Princess to her place, when it is discovered that another lady is required to complete the figure, and an aide-de-camp is despatched into the ballroom to fetch one. He returns, ushering in the beautiful Hilda von Weissenstein.
For this moment the audience had been impatiently waiting, and when the dazzling figure in its trailing, pearl-embroidered robes appeared in the doorway of the ballroom, a storm of applause broke forth again and again, and for some minutes delayed the progress of the scene.
Nothing, indeed, could have been better calculated than this opening to display the peculiar gifts of the actress. The quadrille was a stately spectacular display, in which splendid dress and stirring music and the effects of rhythmic motion had been brought freely into play for the delight of the beholders. Between the figures there was a little skilfully-managed action, mostly in dumb show. The movements of the jealous beauty and of her faithless lover were invested throughout with sufficient dramatic meaning to keep up the thread of the play. But it was not the dramatic aspect of the scene for which the audience cared, it was simply for the display which it made possible of Isabel Bretherton's youth and grace and loveliness. They hung upon her every movement, and Kendal found himself following her with the same eagerness of eye as those about him, lest any phase of that embodied poetry should escape him.
In this introductory scene, the elements which went to make up the spell she exercised over her audience were perfectly distinguishable. Kendal's explanation of it to himself was that it was based upon an exceptional natural endowment of physical perfection, informed and spiritualised by certain moral qualities, by simplicity, frankness, truth of nature. There was a kind of effluence of youth, of purity, of strength, about her which it was impossible not to feel, and which evidently roused the enthusiastic sympathy of the great majority of those who saw her.
Forbes was sitting in the front of the box with Mrs. Stuart, his shaggy gray head and keen lined face attracting considerable attention in their neighbourhood. He was in his most expansive mood; the combativeness of an hour before had disappeared, and the ardent susceptible temperament of the man was absorbed in admiration, in the mere sensuous artist's delight in a stirring and beautiful series of impressions. When the white dress disappeared through the doorway of the ballroom, he followed it with a sigh of regret, and during the scene which followed between the Prince and his intended bride, he hardly looked at the stage. The Princess, indeed, was all that Mrs. Stuart had pronounced her to be; she was stiffer and clumsier than even her Teutonic role could justify, and she marched laboriously through her very proper and virtuous speeches, evidently driven on by an uneasy consciousness that the audience was only eager to come to the end of them and of her.
In the little pause which followed the disappearance of the newly-betrothed pair into the distant ballroom, Mrs. Stuart leant backward over her chair and said to Kendal:
'Now then, Mr. Kendal, prepare your criticisms! In the scene which is just coming Miss Bretherton has a good deal more to do than to look pretty!'
'Oh, but you forget our compact!' said Kendal. 'Remember you are to be the judge of our behaviour at the end. It is not the part of a judge to tempt those on whom he is to deliver judgment to crime.'
'Don't put too much violence on yourselves!' said Mrs. Stuart, laughing. 'You and Edward can have the back of the box to talk what heresy you like in, so long as you let Mr. Forbes perform his devotions undisturbed.'
At this Forbes half turned round, and shook his great mane, under which gleamed a countenance of comedy menace, at the two men behind him. But in another instant the tones of Isabel Bretherton's voice riveted his attention, and the eyes of all those in the box were once more turned towards the stage.
The scene which followed was one of the most meritorious passages in the rather heavy German play from which the White Lady had been adapted. It was intended to show the romantic and passionate character of the Countess, and to suggest that vein of extravagance and daring in her which was the explanation of the subsequent acts. In the original the dialogue had a certain German force and intensity, which lost nothing of its occasional heaviness in the mouth of Hawes, the large-boned swaggering personage who played the Prince. An actress with sufficient force of feeling, and an artistic sense subtle enough to suggest to her the necessary modulations, could have made a great mark in it. But the first words, almost, revealed Isabel Bretherton's limitations, and before two minutes were over Kendal was conscious of a complete collapse of that sympathetic relation between him and the actress which the first scene had produced. In another sentence or two the spell had been irrevocably broken, and he seemed to himself to have passed from a state of sensitiveness to all that was exquisite and rare in her to a state of mere irritable consciousness of her defects. It was evident to him that in a scene of great capabilities she never once rose beyond the tricks of an elementary elocution, that her violence had a touch of commonness in it which was almost vulgarity, and that even her attitudes had lost half their charm. For, in the effort—the conscious and laboured effort of acting—her movements, which had exercised such an enchantment over him in the first scene, had become mere strides and rushes, never indeed without grace, but often without dignity, and at all times lacking in that consistency, that unity of plan which is the soul of art.
The sense of chill and disillusion was extremely disagreeable to him, and, by the time the scene was half-way through, he had almost ceased to watch her. Edward Wallace, who had seen her some two or three times in the part, was perfectly conscious of the change, and had been looking out for it.
'Not much to be said for her, I am afraid, when she comes to business,' he said to Kendal in a whisper, as the two leant against the door of the box. 'Where did she get those tiresome tricks she has, that see-saw intonation she puts on when she wants to be pathetic, and that absurd restlessness which spoils everything? It's a terrible pity. Sometimes I think I catch a gleam of some original power at the bottom, but there is such a lack of intelligence—in the artist's sense. It is a striking instance of how much and how little can be done without education.'
'It is curiously bad, certainly,' said Kendal, while the actress's denunciations of her lover were still ringing through the theatre. 'But look at the house! What folly it is ever to expect a great dramatic art in England. We have no sense for the rudiments of the thing. The French would no more tolerate such acting as this because of the beauty of the actress than they would judge a picture by its frame. However, if men like Forbes leave their judgment behind them, it's no wonder if commoner mortals follow suit.'
'There!' said Wallace, with a sigh of relief as the curtain fell on the first act, 'that's done with. There are two or three things in the second act that are beautiful. In her first appearance as the White Lady she is as wonderful as ever, but the third act is a nuisance—'
'No whispering there,' said Forbes, looking round upon them. 'Oh, I know what you're after, Edward, perfectly. I hear it all with one ear.'
'That,' said Wallace, moving up to him, 'is physically impossible. Don't be so pugnacious. We leave you the front of the box, and when we appear in your territory our mouths are closed. But in our own domain we claim the rights of free men.'
'Poor girl!' said Forbes, with a sigh. 'How she manages to tame London as she does is a marvel to me! If she were a shade less perfect and wonderful than she is, she would have been torn to pieces by you critics long ago. You have done your best as it is, only the public won't listen to you. Oh, don't suppose I don't see all that you see. The critical poison's in my veins just as it is in yours, but I hold it in check—it shan't master me. I will have my pleasure in spite of it, and when I come across anything in life that makes me feel, I will protect my feeling from it with all my might.'
'We are dumb,' said Kendal, with a smile; 'otherwise I would pedantically ask you to consider what are the feelings to which the dramatic art properly and legitimately appeals.'
'Oh, hang your dramatic art,' said Forbes, firing up; 'can't you take things simply and straightforwardly? She is there—she is doing her best for you—there isn't a movement or a look which isn't as glorious as that of a Diana come to earth, and you won't let it charm you and conquer you, because she isn't into the bargain as confoundedly clever as you are yourselves! Well, it's your loss, not hers.'
'My dear Mr. Forbes,' said Mrs. Stuart, with her little judicial peace-making air, 'we shall all go away contented. You will have had your sensation, they will have had their sense of superiority, and, as for me, I shall get the best of it all round. For, while you are here, I see Miss Bretherton with your eyes, and yet, as Edward will get hold of me on the way home, I shan't go to bed without having experienced all the joys of criticism! Oh! but now hush, and listen to this music. It is one of the best things in the evening, and we shall have the White Lady directly.'
As she spoke, the orchestra, which was a good one, and perhaps the most satisfactory feature in the performance, broke into some weird Mendelssohnian music, and when the note of plaintiveness and mystery had been well established, the curtain rose upon the great armoury of the castle, a dim indistinguishable light shining upon its fretted roof and masses of faintly gleaming steel. The scene which followed, in which the Countess Hilda, disguised as the traditional phantom of the Hohenzollerns, whose appearance bodes misfortune and death to those who behold it, throws herself across the path of her rival in the hope of driving her and those interested in her by sheer force of terror from the castle and from Berlin, had been poetically conceived, and it furnished Miss Bretherton with an admirable opportunity. As the White Lady, gliding between rows of armed and spectral figures on either hand, and startling the Princess and her companion by her sudden apparition in a gleam of moonlight across the floor, she was once more the representative of all that is most poetical and romantic in physical beauty. Nay, more than this; as she flung her white arms above her head, or pointed to the shrinking and fainting figure of her rival while she uttered her wailing traditional prophecy of woe, her whole personality seemed to be invested with a dramatic force of which there had been no trace in the long and violent scene with the Prince. It was as though she was in some sort capable of expressing herself in action and movement, while in all the arts of speech she was a mere crude novice. At any rate, there could be no doubt that in this one scene she realised the utmost limits of the author's ideal, and when she faded into the darkness beyond the moonlight in which she had first appeared, the house, which had been breathlessly silent during the progress of the apparition, burst into a roar of applause, in which Wallace and Kendal heartily joined.
'Exquisite!' said Kendal in Mrs. Stuart's ear, as he stood behind her chair. 'She was romance itself! Her acting should always be a kind of glorified and poetical pantomime; she would be inimitable so.'
Mrs. Stuart looked up and smiled agreement. 'Yes, that scene lives with one. If everything else in the play is poor, she is worth seeing for that alone. Remember it!'
The little warning was in season, for the poor White Lady had but too many after opportunities of blurring the impression she had made. In the great situation at the end of the second act, in which the Countess has to give, in the presence of the Court, a summary of the supposed story of the White Lady, her passion at once of love and hatred charges it with a force and meaning which, for the first time, rouses the suspicions of the Prince as to the reality of the supposed apparition. In the two or three fine and dramatic speeches which the situation involved, the actress showed the same absence of knowledge and resources as before, the same powerlessness to create a personality, the same lack of all those quicker and more delicate perceptions which we include under the general term 'refinement,' and which, in the practice of any art, are the outcome of long and complex processes of education. There, indeed, was the bald, plain fact—the whole explanation of her failure as an artist lay in her lack both of the lower and of the higher kinds of education. It was evident that her technical training had been of the roughest. In all technical respects, indeed, her acting had a self-taught, provincial air, which showed you that she had natural cleverness, but that her models had been of the poorest type. And in all other respects—when it came to interpretation or creation—she was spoilt by her entire want of that inheritance from the past which is the foundation of all good work in the present. For an actress must have one of the two kinds of knowledge: she must have either the knowledge which comes from a fine training—in itself the outcome of a long tradition—or she must have the knowledge which comes from mere living, from the accumulations of personal thought and experience. Miss Bretherton had neither. She had extraordinary beauty and charm, and certainly, as Kendal admitted, some original quickness. He was not inclined to go so far as to call it 'power.' But this quickness, which would have been promising in a debutante less richly endowed on the physical side, seemed to him to have no future in her. 'It will be checked,' he said to himself, 'by her beauty and all that flows from it. She must come to depend more and more on the physical charm, and on that only. The whole pressure of her success is and will be that way.'
Miss Bretherton's inadequacy, indeed, became more and more visible as the play was gradually and finely worked up to its climax in the last act. In the final scene of all, the Prince, who by a series of accidents has discovered the Countess Hilda's plans, lies in wait for her in the armoury, where he has reason to know she means to try the effect of a third and last apparition upon the Princess. She appears; he suddenly confronts her; and, dragging her forward, unveils before himself and the Princess the death-like features of his old love. Recovering from the shock of detection, the Countess pours out upon them both a fury of jealous passion, sinking by degrees into a pathetic, trance-like invocation of the past, under the spell of which the Prince's anger melts away, and the little Princess's terror and excitement change into eager pity. Then, when she sees him almost reconquered, and her rival weeping beside her, she takes the poison phial from her breast, drinks it, and dies in the arms of the man for whose sake she has sacrificed beauty, character, and life itself.
A great actress could hardly have wished for a better opportunity. The scene was so obviously beyond Miss Bretherton's resources that even the enthusiastic house, Kendal fancied, cooled down during the progress of it. There were signs of restlessness, there was even a little talking in some of the back rows, and at no time during the scene was there any of that breathless absorption in what was passing on the stage which the dramatic material itself amply deserved.
'I don't think this will last very long,' said Kendal in Wallace's ear. 'There is something tragic in a popularity like this; it rests on something unsound, and one feels that disaster is not far off. The whole thing impresses me most painfully. She has some capacity, of course; if only the conditions had been different—if she had been born within a hundred miles of the Paris Conservatoire, if her youth had been passed in a society of more intellectual weight,—but, as it is, this very applause is ominous, for the beauty must go sooner or later, and there is nothing else.'
'You remember Desforets in this same theatre last year in Adrienne Lecouvreur?' said Wallace. 'What a gulf between the right thing and the wrong! But come, we must do our duty;' and he drew Kendal forward towards the front of the box, and they saw the whole house on its feet, clapping and shouting, and the curtain just being drawn back to let the White Lady and the Prince appear before it. She was very pale, but the storm of applause which greeted her seemed to revive her, and she swept her smiling glance round the theatre, until at last it rested with a special gleam of recognition on the party in the box, especially on Forbes, who was outdoing himself in enthusiasm. She was called forward again and again, until at last the house was content, and the general exit began.
The instant after her white dress had disappeared from the stage, a little page-boy knocked at the door of the box with a message that 'Miss Bretherton begs that Mrs. Stuart and her friends will come and see her.' Out they all trooped, along a narrow passage, and up a short staircase, until a rough temporary door was thrown open, and they found themselves in the wings, the great stage, on which the scenery was being hastily shifted, lying to their right. The lights were being put out; only a few gas-jets were left burning round a pillar, beside which stood Isabel Bretherton, her long phantom dress lying in white folds about her, her uncle and aunt and her manager standing near. Every detail of the picture—the spot of brilliant light bounded on all sides by dim, far-reaching vistas of shadow, the figures hurrying across the back of the stage, the moving ghost-like workmen all around, and in the midst that white-hooded, languid figure—revived in Kendal's memory whenever in after days his thoughts went wandering back to the first moment of real contact between his own personality and that of Isabel Bretherton.
A few days after the performance of the White Lady, Kendal, in the course of his weekly letter to his sister, sent her a fairly-detailed account of the evening, including the interview with her after the play, which had left two or three very marked impressions upon him. 'I wish,' he wrote, 'I could only convey to you a sense of her personal charm such as might balance the impression of her artistic defects, which I suppose this account of mine cannot but leave on you. When I came away that night after our conversation with her I had entirely forgotten her failure as an actress, and it is only later, since I have thought over the evening in detail, that I have returned to my first standpoint of wonder at the easy toleration of the English public. When you are actually with her, talking to her, looking at her, Forbes's attitude is the only possible and reasonable one. What does art, or cultivation, or training matter!—I found myself saying, as I walked home, in echo of him,—so long as Nature will only condescend once in a hundred years to produce for us a creature so perfect, so finely fashioned to all beautiful uses! Let other people go through the toil to acquire; their aim is truth: but here is beauty in its quintessence, and what is beauty but three parts of truth? Beauty is harmony with the universal order, a revelation of laws and perfections of which, in our common groping through a dull world, we find in general nothing to remind us. And if so, what folly to ask of a human creature that it should be more than beautiful! It is a messenger from the gods, and we treat it as if it were any common traveller along the highway of life, and cross-examine it for its credentials instead of raising our altar and sacrificing to it with grateful hearts!
'That was my latest impression of Friday night. But, naturally, by Saturday morning I had returned to the rational point of view. The mind's morning climate is removed by many degrees from that of the evening; and the critical revolt which the whole spectacle of the White Lady had originally roused in me revived in all its force. I began, indeed, to feel as if I and humanity, with its long laborious tradition, were on one side, holding our own against a young and arrogant aggressor—namely, beauty, in the person of Miss Bretherton! How many men and women, I thought, have laboured and struggled and died in the effort to reach a higher and higher perfection in one single art, and are they to be outdone, eclipsed in a moment, by something which is a mere freak of nature, something which, like the lilies of the field, has neither toiled nor spun, and yet claims the special inheritance and reward of those who have! It seemed to me as though my feeling in her presence of the night before, as if the sudden overthrow of the critical resistance in me had been a kind of treachery to the human cause. Beauty has power enough, I found myself reflecting with some fierceness,—let us withhold from her a sway and a prerogative which are not rightfully hers; let us defend against her that store of human sympathy which is the proper reward, not of her facile and heaven-born perfections, but of labour and intelligence, of all that is complex and tenacious in the workings of the human spirit.
'And then, as my mood cooled still further, I began to recall many an evening at the Francais with you, and one part after another, one actor after another, recurred to me, till, as I realised afresh what dramatic intelligence and dramatic training really are, I fell into an angry contempt for our lavish English enthusiasms. Poor girl! it is not her fault if she believes herself to be a great actress. Brought up under misleading conditions, and without any but the most elementary education, how is she to know what the real thing means? She finds herself the rage within a few weeks of her appearance in the greatest city of the world. Naturally, she pays no heed to her critics,—why should she?
'And she is indeed a most perplexing mixture. Do what I will I cannot harmonise all my different impressions of her. Let me begin again. Why is it that her acting is so poor? I never saw a more dramatic personality! Everything that she says or does is said or done with a warmth, a force, a vivacity that make her smallest gesture and her lightest tone impress themselves upon you. I felt this very strongly two or three times after the play on Friday night. In her talk with Forbes, for instance, whom she has altogether in her toils, and whom she plays with as though he were the gray-headed Merlin and she an innocent Vivien, weaving harmless spells about him. And then, from this mocking war of words and looks, this gay camaraderie, in which there was not a scrap of coquetry or self-consciousness, she would pass into a sudden outburst of anger as to the impertinence of English rich people—the impertinence of rich millionaires who have tried once or twice to "order" her for their evening parties as they would order their ices, or the impertinence of the young "swell about town" who thinks she has nothing to do behind the scenes but receive his visits and provide him with entertainment. And, as the quick impetuous words came rushing out, you felt that here for once was a woman speaking her real mind to you, and that with a flashing eye and curving lip, an inborn grace and energy which made every word memorable. If she would but look like that or speak like that on the stage! But there, of course, is the rub. The whole difficulty of art consists in losing your own personality, so to speak, and finding it again transformed, and it is a difficulty which Miss Bretherton has never even understood.
'After this impression of spontaneity and natural force, I think what struck me most was the physical effect London has already exercised upon her in six weeks. She looks superbly sound and healthy; she is tall and fully developed, and her colour, for all its delicacy, is pure and glowing. But, after all, she was born in a languid tropical climate, and it is the nervous strain, the rush, the incessant occupation of London which seem to be telling upon her. She gave me two or three times a painful impression of fatigue on Friday—fatigue and something like depression. After twenty minutes' talk she threw herself back against the iron pillar behind her, her White Lady's hood framing a face so pale and drooping that we all got up to go, feeling that it was cruelty to keep her up a minute longer. Mrs. Stuart asked her about her Sundays, and whether she ever got out of town. "Oh," she said, with a sigh and a look at her uncle, who was standing near, "I think Sunday is the hardest day of all. It is our 'at home' day, and such crowds come—just to look at me, I suppose, for I cannot talk to a quarter of them." Whereupon Mr. Worrall said in his bland commercial way that society had its burdens as well as its pleasures, and that his dear niece could hardly escape her social duties after the flattering manner in which London had welcomed her. Miss Bretherton answered, with a sort of languid rebellion, that her social duties would soon be the death of her. But evidently she is very docile at home, and they do what they like with her. It seems to me that the uncle and aunt are a good deal shrewder than the London public; it is borne in upon me by various indications that they know exactly what their niece's popularity depends on, and that it very possibly may not be a long-lived one. Accordingly, they have determined on two things: first, that she shall make as much money for the family as can by any means be made; and, secondly, that she shall find her way into London society, and secure, if possible, a great parti before the enthusiasm for her has had time to chill. One hears various stories of the uncle, all in this sense; I cannot say how true they are.
'However, the upshot of the supper-party was that next day Wallace, Forbes, and I met at Mrs. Stuart's house, and formed a Sunday League for the protection of Miss Bretherton from her family; in other words, we mean to secure that she has occasional rest and country air on Sunday—her only free day. Mrs. Stuart has already wrung out of Mrs. Worrall, by a little judicious scaring, permission to carry her off for two Sundays—one this month and one next—and Miss Bretherton's romantic side, which is curiously strong in her, has been touched by the suggestion that the second Sunday should be spent at Oxford.
'Probably for the first Sunday—a week hence—we shall go to Surrey. You remember Hugh Farnham's property near Leith Hill? I know all the farms about there from old shooting days, and there is one on the edge of some great commons, which would be perfection on a May Sunday. I will write you a full account of our day. The only rule laid down by the League is that things are to be so managed that Miss Bretherton is to have no possible excuse for fatigue so long as she is in the hands of the society.
'My book goes on fairly well. I have been making a long study of De Musset, with the result that the poems seem to me far finer than I had remembered, and the Confessions d' un Enfant du Siecle a miserable performance. How was it it impressed me so much when I read it first? His poems have reminded me of you at every step. Do you remember how you used to read them aloud to our mother and me after dinner, while the father had his sleep before going down to the House?'
Ten days later Kendal spent a long Monday evening in writing the following letter to his sister:—
'Our yesterday's expedition was, I think, a great success. Mrs. Stuart was happy, because she had for once induced Stuart to put away his papers and allow himself a holiday; it was Miss Bretherton's first sight of the genuine English country, and she was like a child among the gorse and the hawthorns, while Wallace and I amused our manly selves extremely well in befriending the most beautiful woman in the British Isles, in drawing her out and watching her strong naive impressions of things. Stuart, I think, was not quite happy. It is hardly to be expected of a lawyer in the crisis of his fortunes that he should enjoy ten hours' divorce from his briefs; but he did his best to reach the common level, and his wife, who is devoted to him, and might as well not be married at all, from the point of view of marital companionship, evidently thought him perfection. The day more than confirmed my liking for Mrs. Stuart; there are certain little follies about her; she is too apt to regard every distinguished dinner-party she and Stuart attend as an event of enormous and universal interest, and beyond London society her sympathies hardly reach, except in that vague charitable form which is rather pity and toleration than sympathy. But she is kindly, womanly, soft; she has no small jealousies and none of that petty self-consciousness which makes so many women wearisome to the great majority of plain men, who have no wish to take their social exercises too much au serieux.
'I was curious to see what sort of a relationship she and Miss Bretherton had developed towards each other. Mrs. Stuart is nothing if not cultivated; her light individuality floats easily on the stream of London thought, now with this current, now with that, but always in movement, never left behind. She has the usual literary and artistic topics at her fingers' end, and as she knows everybody, whenever the more abstract sides of a subject begin to bore her, she can fall back upon an endless store of gossip as lively, as brightly-coloured, and, on the whole, as harmless as she herself is. Miss Bretherton had till a week or two ago but two subjects—Jamaica and the stage—the latter taken in a somewhat narrow sense. Now, she has added to her store of knowledge a great number of first impressions of London notorieties, which naturally throw her mind and Mrs. Stuart's more frequently into contact with each other. But I see that, after all, Mrs. Stuart had no need of any bridges of this kind to bring her on to common ground with Isabel Bretherton. Her strong womanliness and the leaven of warm-hearted youth still stirring in her would be quite enough of themselves, and, besides, there is her critical delight in the girl's beauty, and the little personal pride and excitement she undoubtedly feels at having, in so creditable and natural a manner, secured a hold on the most interesting person of the season. It is curious to see her forgetting her own specialities, and neglecting to make her own points, that she may bring her companion forward and set her in the best light. Miss Bretherton takes her homage very prettily; it is natural to her to be made much of, and she does not refuse it, but she in her turn evidently admires enormously her friend's social capabilities and cleverness, and she is impulsively eager to make some return for Mrs. Stuart's kindness—an eagerness which shows itself in the greatest complaisance towards all the Stuarts' friends, and in a constant watchfulness for anything which will please and flatter them.
'However, here I am as usual wasting time in analysis instead of describing to you our Sunday. It was one of those heavenly days with which May startles us out of our winter pessimism, sky and earth seemed to be alike clothed in a young iridescent beauty. We found a carriage waiting for us at the station, and we drove along a great main road until a sudden turn landed us in a green track traversing a land of endless commons, as wild and as forsaken of human kind as though it were a region in some virgin continent. On either hand the gorse was thick and golden, great oaks, splendid in the first dazzling sharpness of their spring green, threw vast shadows over the fresh moist grass beneath, and over the lambs sleeping beside their fleecy mothers, while the hawthorns rose into the sky in masses of rose-tinted snow, each tree a shining miracle of white set in the environing blue.
'Then came the farmhouse—old, red-brick, red-tiled, casemented—everything that the aesthetic soul desires—the farmer and his wife looking out for us, and a pleasant homely meal ready in the parlour, with its last-century woodwork.
'Forbes was greatly in his element at lunch. I never knew him more racy; he gave us biographies, mostly imaginary, illustrated by sketches, made in the intervals of eating, of the sitters whose portraits he has condescended to take this year. They range from a bishop and a royalty down to a little girl picked up in the London streets, and his presentation of the characteristic attitudes of each—those attitudes which, according to him, betray the "inner soul" of the bishop or the foundling—was admirable. Then he fell upon the Academy—that respected body of which I suppose he will soon be the President—and tore it limb from limb. With what face I shall ever sit at the same table with him at the Academy dinners of the future—supposing fortune ever exalts me again as she did this year to that august meal—I hardly know. Millais's faces, Pettie's knights, or Calderon's beauties—all fared the same. You could not say it was ill-natured; it was simply the bare truth of things put in the whimsical manner which is natural to Forbes.
'Miss Bretherton listened to and laughed at it all, finding her way through the crowd of unfamiliar names and allusions with a woman's cleverness, looking adorable all the time in a cloak of some brown velvet stuff, and a large hat also of brown velvet. She has a beautiful hand, fine and delicate, not specially small, but full of character; it was pleasant to watch it playing with her orange, or smoothing back every now and then the rebellious locks which will stray, do what she will, beyond the boundaries assigned to them. Presently Wallace was ill-advised enough to ask her which pictures she had liked best at the Private View; she replied by picking out a ballroom scene of Forth's and an unutterable mawkish thing of Halford's—a troubadour in a pink dressing-gown, gracefully intertwined with violet scarves, singing to a party of robust young women in a "light which never was on sea or land." "You could count all the figures in the first," she said, "it was so lifelike, so real;" and then Halford was romantic, the picture was pretty, and she liked it. I looked at Forbes with some amusement; it was gratifying, remembering the rodomontade with which Wallace and had been crushed on the night of the White Lady, to see him wince under Miss Bretherton's liking of the worst art in England! Is the critical spirit worth something, or is it superfluous in theatrical matters and only indispensable in matters of painting! I think he caught the challenge in my eye, for he evidently felt himself in some little difficulty.
'"Oh, you couldn't," he said with a groan, "you couldn't like that ballroom,—and that troubadour, Heaven forgive us! Well, there must be something in it,—there must be something in it, if it really gives you pleasure,—I daresay there is; we're so confoundedly uppish in the way we look at things. If either of them had a particle of drawing or a scrap of taste, if both of them weren't as bare as a broomstick of the least vestige of gift, or any suspicion of knowledge, there might be a good deal to say for them! Only, my dear Miss Bretherton, you see it's really not a matter of opinion; I assure you it isn't. I could prove to you as plain as that two and two make four, that Halford's figures don't join in the middle, and that Forth's men and women are as flat as my hand—there isn't a back among them! And then the taste, and the colour, and the clap-trap idiocy of the sentiment! No, I don't think I can stand it. I am all for people getting enjoyment where they can," with a defiant look at me, "and snapping their fingers at the critics. But one must draw the line somewhere. There's some art that's out of court from the beginning."