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Philistia (Chapter20)

2006-08-28 23:25

  Chapter XX. Literature, Music, and the Drama.

  'The Primate of Fiji' was duly accepted and put into rehearsal by the astute and enterprising manager of the Ambiguities Theatre. 'It's a risk,' he said candidly, when he read the manuscript over, 'a decided risk, Mr. Berkeley; I acknowledge the riskiness, but I don't mind trying it for all that. You see, you've staked everything upon the doubtful supposition that the Public possesses a certain amount of elementary intelligence, and a certain appreciation of genuine original wit and humour. Your play's literature, good literature; and that's rather a speculative element to introduce into the regular theatre nowadays. Illegitimate, I should call it; decidedly illegitimate——but still, perhaps, worth trying. Do you know the story about old Simon Burbury, the horsedealer? Young Simon says to him one morning, "Father, don't you think we might manage to conduct this business of ours without always telling quite so many downright lies about it?" The old man looks back at him reproachfully, and says with a solemn shake of the head, "Ah, Simon, Simon, little did I ever think I should live to see a son of mine go in for speculation!" Well, my dear sir, that's pretty much how a modern manager feels about the literary element in the drama. The Public isn't accustomed to it, and there's no knowing how they may take it. Shakespeare, now, they stand readily enough, because he's an old-established and perfectly respectable family purveyor. Sheridan, too, of course, and one play of Goldsmith's, and a trifle or so of George Colman——all recognised and all tolerated because of their old prescriptive respectability. But for a new author to aim at being literary's rather presumptuous; now tell me yourself, isn't it? Seems as if he was setting himself up for a heaven-sent genius, and trying to sit upon the older dramatists of the present generation. Melodrama, sensation, burlesque——that's all right enough——perfectly legitimate; but a real literary comic opera, with good words and good music——it is a little strong, for a beginner, Mr. Berkeley, you will acknowledge.'

  'But don't you think,' Arthur answered, smiling good-humouredly at his cynical frankness, 'an educated and cultured Public is beginning to grow up that may, perhaps, really prefer a little literature, provided it's made light enough and attractive enough for their rapid digestion? Don't you think intelligent people are beginning to get just a trifle sick of burlesque, and spectacle, and sensation, and melodrama?'

  'Why, my dear sir,' the manager answered promptly, 'that's the exact chance on which I'm calculating when I venture to accept your comic opera from an unknown beginner. It's clever, there's no denying that, and I hope the fact won't be allowed to tell against it: but the music's bright and lively; the songs are quaint and catching; the dialogue's brisk and not too witty; and there's plenty of business——plenty of business in it. I incline to think we can get together a house at the Ambiguities that'll enter into the humour of the thing, and see what your play's driving at. How did you learn all about stage requirements, though? I never saw a beginner's play with so little in it that was absolutely impossible.'

  'I was a Shooting Star at Oxford,' Berkeley answered simply, 'so that I know something——like a despised amateur——about stage necessities; and I've written one or two little pieces before for private acting. Besides, Watkiss has helped me with all the technical arrangements of the little opera.'

  'It'll do,' the manager answered, more confidently; 'I won't predict a success, because you know a manager should never prophesy unless he knows; but I think there's a Public in London that'll take it in, just as they took in "Caste" and "Society," twenty years back, at the Prince of Wales's. Anyhow, I'm quite prepared to give it a fair trial.'

  On the first night, Arthur Berkeley and the Progenitor went down in fear and trembling to the stage door of the Ambiguities. There was a full house, and the critics were all present, in some surprise at the temerity of this new man; for it was noised abroad already by those who had seen the rehearsals that 'The Primate of Fiji' was a fresh departure, after its own fashion, in the matter of English comic opera. The curtain rose upon the chorus of mermaids, and the first song was a decided hit. Still the Public, as becomes a first night, maintained a dignified and critical reserve. When the President of the Board of Trade, in full court costume, appeared upon the scene, in the midst of the very realistic long-haired sea-ladies, the audience was half shocked for a moment by the utter incongruity of the situation; but after a while they began to discover that the incongruity was part of the joke, and they laughed quietly a sedate and moderate laugh of suspended judgment. As the Progenitor had predicted, the gods were the first to enter into the spirit of the fun, and to give a hand to the Primate's first sermon. The scuntific professors on the Challenger Expedition took the fancy of the house a little more decidedly; and even the stalls thawed visibly when the professor of biology delivered his famous exposition of the evolution hypothesis to the assembled chiefs of Raratouga. But it was the one feeble second-hand old joke of the piece that really brought pit and boxes down together in a sudden fit of inextinguishable laughter. The professor of political economy enquired diligently, with note book in hand, of the Princess of Fiji, whether she thought the influence of the missionaries beneficial or otherwise; whether she considered these preachers of a new religion really good or not; to which the unsophisticated child of nature responded naively, 'Good, very good——roasted; but not quite so good boiled,' and the professor gravely entered the answer in his philosophic note-book. It was a very ancient jest indeed, but it tickled the ribs of the house mightily, as ancient jests usually do, and they burst forthwith into a hearty roar of genuine approval. Then Arthur began to breathe more freely. After that the house toned down again quietly, and gave no decided token of approbation till the end of the piece. When the curtain dropped there was a lull of hushed expectation for poor Arthur Berkeley; and at its close the house broke out into a storm of applause, and 'The Primate of Fiji' had firmly secured its position as the one great theatrical success of the present generation.

  There was a loud cry of 'Author! Author!' and Arthur Berkeley, hardly knowing how he got there, or what he was standing on, found himself pushed from behind by friendly hands, on to the narrow space between the curtain and the footlights. He became aware that a very hot and red body, presumably himself, was bowing mechanically to a seething and clapping mass of hands and faces over the whole theatre. Backing out again, in the same semi-conscious fashion, with the universe generally reeling on more than one distinct axis all around him, he was seized and hand-shaken violently, first by the Progenitor, then by the manager, and then by half a dozen other miscellaneous and unknown persons. At last, after a lot more revolutions of the universe, he found himself comfortably pitched into a convenient hansom, with the Progenitor by his side; and hardly knew anything further till he discovered his own quiet supper table at the Chelsea lodgings, and saw his father mixing a strong glass of brandy and seltzer for him. to counteract the strength of the excitement.

  Next morning Arthur Berkeley 'awoke, and found himself famous.' 'The Primate of Fiji' was the rage of the moment. Everybody went to hear it——everybody played its tunes at their own pianos——everybody quoted it, and adapted it, and used its clever catchwords as the pet fashionable slang expressions of the next three seasons. Arthur Berkeley was the lion of the hour; and the mantelpiece of the quiet little Chelsea study was ranged three rows deep with cards of invitation from people whose very names Arthur had never heard of six months before, and whom the Progenitor declared it was a sin and shame for any respectable young man of sound economical education even to countenance. There were countesses, and marchionesses, too, among the senders of those coronetted parallelograms of waste pasteboard, as the Progenitor called them——nay, there was even one invitation on the mantelpiece that bore the three strawberry leaves and other insignia of Her Grace the Duchess of Leicestershire.

  'Can't you give us just one evening, Mr. Berkeley,' said Lady Hilda Tregellis, as she sat on the centre ottoman in Mrs. Campbell Moncrieff's drawing-room with Arthur Berkeley talking lightly to her about the nothings which constitute polite conversation in the nineteenth century. 'Just one evening, any day after the next fortnight? We should be so delighted if you could manage to favour us.'

  'No, I'm afraid I can't, Lady Hilda,' Arthur answered. 'My evenings are so dreadfully full just now; and besides, you know, I'm not accustomed to so much society, and it unsettles me for my daily work. After all, you see, I'm a journeyman playwright now, and I have to labour at my unholy calling just like the theatrical carpenter.'

  'How delightfully frank,' thought Lady Hilda. 'Really I like him quite immensely.——Not even the afternoon on Wednesday fortnight?' she went on aloud. 'You might come to our garden party on Wednesday fortnight.'

  'Quite impossible,' Arthur Berkeley answered. 'That's my regular day at Pilbury Regis.'

  'Pilbury Regis!' cried Lady Hilda, starting a little. 'You don't mean to say you have engagements, and in the thick of the season, too, at Pilbury Regis!'

  'Yes, I have, every Wednesday fortnight,' Berkeley answered, with a smile. 'I go there regularly. You see, Lady Hilda, Wednesday's a half-holiday at Pilbury Grammar School; so every second week I run down for the day to visit an old friend of mine, who's also an acquaintance of yours, I believe,——Ernest Le Breton. He's married now, you know, and has got a mastership at the Pilbury Grammar School.'

  'Then you know Mr. Le Breton!' cried Lady Hilda, charmed at this rapprochement of two delightfully original men. 'He is so nice. I like him immensely, and I'm so glad you're a friend of his. And Mrs. Le Breton, too; wasn't it nice of him? Tell me, Mr. Berkeley, was she really and truly a grocer's daughter?'

  Berkeley's voice grew a little stiffer and colder as he answered, 'She was a sister of Oswald of Oriel, the great mathematician, who was killed last year by falling from the summit of a peak in the Bernina.'

  'Oh, yes, yes, I know all about that, of course,' said Lady Hilda, quickly and carelessly. 'I know her brother was very clever and all that sort of thing; but then there are so many men who are very clever, aren't there? The really original thing about it all, you know, was that he actually married a grocer's daughter. That was really quite too delightfully original. I was charmed when I heard about it: I thought it was so exactly like dear Mr. Le Breton. He's so deliciously unconventional in every way. He was Lynmouth's tutor for a while, as you've heard, of course; and then he went away from us, at a moment's notice, so nicely, because he wouldn't stand papa's abominable behaviour, and quite right, too, when it was a matter of conscience——I dare say he's told you all about it, that horrid pigeon-shooting business. Well, and so you know Mrs. Le Breton——do tell me, what sort of person is she?'

  'She's very nice, and very good, and very pretty, and very clever,' Arthur answered, a little constrainedly. 'I don't know that I can tell you anything more about her than that.'

  'Then you really like her?' said Lady Hilda, warmly. 'You think her a fit wife for Mr. Le Breton, do you?'

  'I think him a very lucky fellow indeed to have married such a charming and beautiful woman,' Arthur answered, quietly.

  Lady Hilda noticed his manner, and read through it at once with a woman's quickness. 'Aha!' she said to herself: 'the wind blows that way, does it? What a very remarkable girl she must be, really, to have attracted two such men as Mr. Berkeley and Mr. Le Breton. I've lost one of them to her; I can't very well lose the other, too: for after Ernest Le Breton, I've never seen any man I should care to marry so much as Mr. Arthur Berkeley.'

  'Lady Hilda,' said the hostess, coming up to her at that moment, 'you'll play us something, won't you? You know you promised to bring your music.'

  Hilda rose at once with stately alacrity. Nothing could have pleased her better. She went to the piano, and, to the awe and astonishment of Mrs. Campbell Moncrieff, took out an arrangement of the Fijian war-dance from 'The Primate of Fiji.' It suited her brilliant slap-dash style of execution admirably; and she felt she had never played so well in her life before. The presence of the composer, which would have frightened and unnerved most girls of her age, only made Hilda Tregellis the bolder and the more ambitious. Here was somebody at least who knew something about it; none of your ordinary fashionable amateurs and mere soulless professional performers, but the very man who had made the music——the man in whose brain the notes had first gathered themselves together into speaking melody, and who could really judge the comparative merits of her rapid execution. She played with wonderful verve and spirit, so that Lady Exmoor, seated on the side sofa opposite, though shocked at first at Hilda's choice of a piece, glanced more than once at the wealthiest young commoner present (she had long since mentally resigned herself to the prospect of a commoner for that poor dear foolish Hilda), and closely watched his face to see what effect this unwonted outburst of musical talent might succeed in producing upon his latent susceptibilities. But Lady Hilda herself wasn't thinking of the wealthy commoner; she was playing straight at Arthur Berkeley: and when she saw that Arthur Berkeley's mouth had melted slowly into an approving smile, she played even more brilliantly and better than ever, after her bold, smart, vehement fashion. As she left the piano, Arthur said, 'Thank you; I have never heard the piece better rendered.' And Lady Hilda felt that that was a triumph which far outweighed any number of inane compliments from a whole regiment of simpering Algies, Monties, and Berties.

  'You can't say any evening, then, Mr. Berkeley?' she said once more, as she held out her hand to him to say 'Good-night' a little later: 'not any evening at all, or part of an evening? You might really reconsider your engagements.'

  Arthur hesitated visibly. 'Well, possibly I might manage it,' he said, wavering, 'though, I assure you, my evenings are very much more than full already.'

  'Then don't make it an evening,' said Lady Hilda, pressingly. 'Make it lunch. After all, Mr. Berkeley, it's we ourselves who want to see you; not to show you off as a curiosity to all the rest of London. We have silly people enough in the evenings; but if you'll come to lunch with us alone one day, we shall have an opportunity of talking to you on our own account.'

  Lady Hilda was tall and beautiful, and Lady Hilda spoke. as she always used to speak, with manifest sincerity. Now, it is not in human nature not to feel flattered when a beautiful woman pays one genuine homage; and Arthur Berkeley was quite as human, after all, as most other people. 'You're very kind,' he said, smiling. 'I must make it lunch, then, though I really ought to be working in the mornings instead of running about merely to amuse myself. What day will suit you best?'

  'Oh, not to amuse yourself, Mr. Berkeley,' Hilda answered pointedly, 'but to gratify us. That, you know, is a work of benevolence. Say Monday next, then, at two o'clock. Will that do for you?'

  'Perfectly,' Berkeley answered, taking her proffered hand extended to him with just that indefinable air of frankness which Lady Hilda knew so well how to throw into all her actions. 'Good evening. Wilton Place, isn't it!——Gracious heavens!' he thought to himself, as he glanced after her satin train sweeping slowly down the grand staircase, 'what on earth would the dear old Progenitor say if only he saw me in the midst of these meaningless aristocratic orgies. I am positively half-wheedled, it seems, into making love to an earl's daughter! If this sort of thing continues, I shall find myself, before I know it, connected by marriage with two-thirds of the British peerage. A beautiful woman, really, and quite queen-like in her manner when she doesn't choose rather to be unaffectedly gracious. How she sat upon that tall young man with the brown moustaches over by the mantelpiece! I didn't hear what she said to him, but I could see he was utterly crushed by the way he slank away with his tail between his legs, like a whipped spaniel. A splendid woman——and no doubt about it; looks as if she'd stepped straight out of the canvas of Titian, with the pearls in her hair and everything else exactly as he painted them. The handsomest girl I ever saw in my life——but not like Edie Le Breton. They say a man can only fall in love once in a lifetime. I wonder whether there's any truth in it! Well, well, you won't often see a finer woman in her own style than Lady Hilda Tregellis. Monday next, at two precisely; I needn't make a note of it——no fear of my forgetting.'

  'I really do think,' Lady Hilda said to herself as she unrolled the pearls from her thick hair in her own room that winter evening, 'I almost like him better than I did Ernest Le Breton. The very first night I saw him at Lady Mary's I fell quite in love with his appearance, before I knew even who he was; and now that I've found out all about him, I never did hear anything so absolutely and delightfully original. His father a common shoemaker! That, to begin with, throws Ernest Le Breton quite into the shade! His father was a general in the Indian army——nothing could be more banal. Then Mr. Berkeley began life as a clergyman; but now he's taken off his white choker, and wears a suit of grey tweed like any ordinary English gentleman. So delightfully unconventional, isn't it? At last, to crown it all, he not only composes delicious music, but goes and writes a comic opera——such a comic opera! And the best of it is, success hasn't turned his head one atom. He doesn't run with vulgar eagerness after the great people, like your ordinary everyday successful nobody. He took no more notice of me, myself, at first, because I was Lady Hilda Tregellis, than if I'd been a common milkmaid; and he wouldn't come to our garden party because he wanted to go down to Pilbury Regis to visit the Le Bretons at their charity school or something! It was only after I played the war-dance arrangement so well——I never played so brilliantly in my life before——that he began to alter and soften a little. Certainly, these pearls do thoroughly become me. I think he looked after me when I was leaving the room just a tiny bit, as if he was really pleased with me for my own sake, and not merely because I happen to be called Lady Hilda Tregellis.'

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