Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 2 of 3)
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Altogether Fred's position in that affectionate family was an enviable one, and if he was not a proud and happy young fellow as he rattled away with them to the Star Theatre, he ought to have been. Any gentleman in London would have been happy to be in his shoes.
Bob, of course, had gone early to the theatre, convinced that the success of A Heart of Gold depended upon the way in which he would announce "Mrs. Portarlington," "Mr. Praxis," and "Lord Fouracres."
There was a great house. The manager had taken more than usual pains to obtain the attendance of the critic of every influential paper. Fred, who knew a great many of them, pointed them out to the eager girls, and described their peculiarities and the qualities for which they were famous. Mr. Linton, although he had written seven or eight pieces, all of which had been played, was not yet looked upon as a dramatist of mark; some of the best judges had declared that he had a great deal in him, and that he would one day surprise the public, and take London captive by the production of a play of the greatest merit. This opinion was more or less shared by most of the dramatic writers on the press, and they came to-night prepared to deal generously toward him if he showed himself deserving of it. There were others who came prepared for contingencies: theatrical frequenters of pit and gallery, regular "first-nighters," who knew by sight every critic on the London press, and every notability in the city. Before the music commenced they kept up a buzz of conversation, pointing out the celebrities, and tiptoeing over their neighbours to catch a sight of the great men. "It's quite like a party," observed Aunt Leth, as she saw the friendly greeting and salutations of those who were in the habit of meeting on such occasions. Then came a cheer or two and a clapping of hands, which was taken up gradually in all the cheaper parts of the house. A favourite actress had entered a private box, and the enthusiastic play-goers were showing their regard for her. She smiled, and turned to the pit with a pleasant nod, which added to the delight of her admirers. They compared notes: "Did you see her in so-and-so? Wasn't she stunning? Ah, but she was better than all in such-and-such. What does she play in next?" Hungry and eager and ever-ready are the theatrical public to show favour to established favourites; beloved by them are the actor and actress who have given them pleasure; and thus much being acknowledged, it is strange that the dramatic author should hold in their regard what is at best but an equivocal position. They call him out when the curtain falls to hoot or applaud him, and it is a moot point which of the two processes pleases them more. It was of this moment to come that Mr. Linton was thinking as he sat hidden in a box behind the curtains, his fingers playing convulsively on the palms of his hands. To-night, he believed, was to make or mar him. More hung upon the success of A Heart of Gold than the public was aware of.He was poor, very poor; his wife was nursing a sick child, for whom the doctor had prescribed what it was not in Linton's power to afford. Would the result of this night's work put him in funds, cause him to be in demand, and make the world bright for him? He saw an American manager in the stalls, and he knew if A Heart of Gold was successful that he would at once receive an offer from him for the American rights. That meant money – meant, perhaps, the life of his child. He had sat by the bedside at home till the last minute, and when he kissed his little one, had whispered, "Wish father good luck, my dear!" "Good luck, father!" murmured the child, and kept his arms entwined round the loving father's neck so tight that they had to be loosened by gentle force. Then he had held his good wife in his embrace for a moment, and she pressed him fondly to her; he could not speak, he was almost choked; his lips trembled so that he could scarcely kiss her; and he bore with him, as he ran out of the room, the memory of the patient, wistful face, which would have been more cheerful had their circumstances been better. He saw it now as he sat hidden behind the curtains in the private box; he saw his little child in bed, pining away. "Oh, God!" he muttered, "if they but knew! if they but knew!"
"Who is in that box?" asked Fanny. "Not a soul can be seen; but – there, there it is again – the curtain just moved, and some one peeped through."
"That is the author's box," said Fred. "I have no doubt Mr. Linton is there."
"Poor gentleman!" said Aunt Leth. "How anxious he must be! I wish we had him here with us."
"They prefer to be alone, as a rule," said Fred, somewhat grimly, "on the first nights of their pieces."
The leader of the band entered the orchestra, gloved for the honourable occasion. People began to seat themselves; the music was lively and appropriate, and put them in good humour. Linton gnawed his under-lip, and leaning forward suddenly, almost betrayed his presence. The curtain rose, and A Heart of Gold commenced its perilous career.
Is there any need to describe it at length here? It would be but a recapitulation of that with which every old play-goer is familiar, for this was a night to be remembered. Sufficient that the comedy-drama opened well and won the sympathies and the favour of the house. Kiss was greeted with a roar of applause, and outshone himself. The act-drop descended on the first act, and there was a general call. Linton brightened up; he hastened to the back of the scenes through a little door at the side of his box, and nodded gaily at the manager; but that astute person of long experience merely looked at him, and said, "Wait." He passed on, and Linton, rather dashed, went back to his box.
In the second act Bob made his appearance, and very bravely announced "Mrs. Portarlington," and his family declared that it was a most successful d?but. It was with difficulty that they refrained from applauding him, and if the truth must be told they did patter slightly with their feet, but as not a soul in the house responded to this initial movement, they did not continue it.
How was it that, after this, A Heart of Gold began to trail off? The Lethbridges could not account for it, nor could many other sympathizing friends in the house. It was pretty, the language was touching, the situations were sufficiently good, and yet it is a fact that from the opening of the second act the favourable impression created faded away, and was replaced by a feeling of weariness and indifference. Behind the scenes, where Linton did not put in an appearance till the play was over, the manager knitted his brows, and Kiss looked grave; while in his private box the poor dramatic author was gnawing his heart and thinking of his wife and child. The Lethbridges were in consternation; they strove in vain to stimulate the applause; the audience resented the attempt, and commenced to hiss. This stirred the indignation of the more favourably disposed, and they stamped and clapped their hands violently. "The fools!" muttered the manager, as he stood at the side wings. "Why don't they leave off applauding? If they go on, there'll be a row." His prognostication was verified. The hissing grew louder and more frequent, and when the curtain finally fell a perfect storm broke out. It was, however, stilled for a few minutes by a spirit of toleration toward old favourites among the company, and these were called before the curtain and applauded. Then came calls for "Author! Author!" The unfortunate man had made his way on to the stage, and was wandering about with a white face and a mind almost crazed with distracted thought. The actors and actresses scarcely dared to speak to him; some looked upon him with positive displeasure, and turned from him to their dressing-rooms, saying as they went: "The notice will be up to-morrow. A nice slating we shall get in the papers!" Kiss stepped to Linton's side, and laid his hand kindly on the author's shoulder. Linton raised his eyes pitifully, and a sound like a sob escaped from him. Meanwhile the hooting and hissing and the cruel cries for "Author! Author!" continued.
"Oh!" sighed Aunt Leth, "how dreadful! how dreadful! I shall never have courage to come to another first night."
She was on the verge of tears herself, as though it was one very dear to her who was being damned. In a little while the audience waxed into fury. "Author! Author! Author!" rang through the house; and there were malicious ones among the auditors who enjoyed the fun. Five minutes, six minutes, seven minutes passed in this way. And still the poor author paced the stage, in and out the wings.
"Go on," said the manager to him, "or they'll tear up the benches!"
Linton did not answer. The cries redoubled in fierceness.
"Author! Author! Author! Hoo-oo-oo! Hoo-oo-oo! Author! Author!"
"Damn you!" cried the manager to Linton; "go on like a man, can't you, and get it over! It will cost me another hundred pounds if you don't!"
The noise now really began to assume the preliminary features of a riot; the malcontents were not only angry, they were enraged.
"How will it end? How will it end?" sighed Aunt Leth, clasping her hands.
"He ought to come on," observed Fred Cornwall, gravely.
Suddenly the green curtain was shaken, drawn aside, and Linton stepped in front. He made but two steps forward, and was greeted with volleys of hisses and derisive laughter. He was about to retire, when, swayed by an uncontrollable impulse, he altered his intention, and, advancing swiftly into the centre of the stage, stood before the audience, and held up his trembling hands.
"What is he going to do now?" said the manager, watching him from the side. "He has his gruelling; why don't he come off?"
Linton's unexpected movement produced an instant effect. Every voice was instantly hushed, and the people craned forward to hear what he had to say.
Two or three times he essayed to speak, but not a sound issued from him. Then he found his voice and spoke:
"Why have you insisted that I should come before you? In order that you may hoot me? Do you think I do not feel with sufficient keenness that my effort to-night has been a failure? It is an effort, at least, which has occupied me for many hard-working months; and that the result should be what it is – is it not punishment enough? Are you not satisfied with killing a man? Must you also torture him? There is a side to this matter which may not recommend itself to you, because it is human. An author is not entirely an abstract entity. He is also a man. In my case he is a husband and a father. I am not appealing to you for mercy – I would scorn to do it; I am simply stating a fact. We are not very rich at home, and cannot afford more than two rooms to live in. When I left my wife this evening to come here she was nursing a delicate child – our only child – for whom the doctor had ordered a certain course which we were not exactly able to carry out, because of the slender purse. I hoped to be able to take home to her news which would cheer her heart, and perhaps save the life of our little one. How anxiously is she awaiting me, counting the moments, and fondly hoping that my brows are being crowned with success! You are angry, indignant with me, but your loss is a trifle compared with mine. I take with me this night from the theatre a heavier load than yours. I can say no more; I retire from your presence with no light heart, and as I go, continue to hoot me! It will be manly!"
He bowed with an ashen face, and was slowly leaving the stage amidst a dead silence, when he paused and spoke again:
"There have been instances when first-night verdicts have been reversed, and when what looked like a failure has been worked into a success. On my knees to-night I shall pray to God that this may be the case with my play! Perhaps He will hear me!"
"My boy!" cried the manager, slapping Linton on the back when he got behind the curtain. "My boy! a wonderful speech! Wonderful! I never heard anything like it. Did you learn it beforehand? It will do us a power of good. Nothing could be more fortunate. It may save the piece."
"Don't speak to me! Don't speak to me!" said Linton, and he crept from the theatre, sobbing as though his heart were breaking.