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HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE
BY THE AUTHOR OF LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET,' ETC.
'Hélas! l'amour sans lendemain ni veille
ERMAN is in his place just in time to see the curtain rise on a scene as perfect as any picture which our realistic and artistic modern stage has ever offered to the public. It is an interior in Pompeii, elaborate, exquisite in its details as a picture by Alma Tadema. The foreground represents the triclinium, or dining-room, divided by marble columns from the peristyle, where a silvery spray flies upward amidst the gloom of oleander and olive. Through the open roof of that inner court shines the calm summer moon. Three men, reclining on their narrow couches around a central table laden with fruits and flowers and tapering wine-flasks, occupy the stage, one young, with curled locks, crowned with a rose-garland. Slaves are in attendance; flute-players, dancing-girls fill the background; but as the scene progresses these melt away. Leander, a rich young patrician, being weary of life and its beaten round of pleasures, has determined to make a sudden end of a brief bright existence with a draught of hemlock. He announces his resolution to his two parasites, middle-aged profligates, who have been the instruments of his corruption. He frankly expresses his contempt for both these sycophants-one a drunkard, the other a miser; but tells them that he is going to leave his wealth to one of them, upon a certain condition. He has just purchased a lovely slave from Cyprus, and his fortune shall be bestowed upon that one of his flatterers whom the fair captive favours with her preference.
The two friends are by no means charmed by the idea of this encounter; but Leander tells them that, having no real friendship for one or the other, he saves himself the embarrassment of choos
THIRD SERIES, VOL. V. F.S. VOL. XXV.
ing his heir by letting some one else make the election. The friends at first refuse the contest, assume a noble scorn, and resign all hope of Leander's wealth rather than stoop to sue for a girl's favour, which both feel doubtful of conciliating; but being left to themselves, prudence comes to the rescue, and they determine to hazard the trial, each entertaining the lowest estimate of the other's merits. Leander returns, and hears that their honourable scruples have evaporated.
And now the slave appears in her white robes, with the golden serpents on her wrists, pale, beautiful, with those great dark eyes of hers, which flash swiftly round the house in one brief survey of the audience. She is a captive, ravished by a crew of pirates from the bright shore where she wandered gaily a little while ago; a maiden of noble birth, reft from home and kindred. It scarcely needs that she should tell this in a brief impassioned speech to her new lord, Myra Brandreth's look and bearing being so entirely noble. Leander is touched by her beauty and sorrow, receives her gently, tenderly even, assures her that no wrong shall be done her. He beseeches her, in order to decide a wager, to declare which of his two friends shall have rendered himself the most agreeable to her in an hour's conversation.
Then follows a scene in which the two sycophants display the graces of their mind in delicate flatteries addressed to Helena the slave; but presently, losing temper in the keen sense of rivalry and the magnitude of the stake, fall foul of each other in a round of abuse, and end by fisticuffs. Helena rushes out to seek some one to part them, and Leander appears while they are fighting, and laughs with cynical delight at the realisation of his intention. His heritage has made them foes already. He has the pleasure of seeing the vultures fighting for his carcass before his death.
From this point Herman's piece diverges from Augier's graceful comedy. Leander, who professes to have proved the hollowness of life and the worthlessness of love, to be weary to satiety of pleasure and beauty, is touched by Helena's modest loveliness and noble mind; and before he is aware, his heart is taken captive by his prisoner. Herman makes the love-scenes more important than they are in the original; he strengthens the character of Helena, deepens the sentimental interest to intensity. At the last, when the appointed hour strikes, and the fatal cup is at Leander's lips, and the passionate cry, 'I love you!' breaks from the slave, the audience is moved as with one mind, and a burst of enthusiastic applause proclaims the triumph of actress and author.
Herman has rendered Augier's gracious rhyme into blank verse -vigorous, fanciful, poetical, full of repartee and sudden turns of thought, modern illusions thinly veiled by their classic dress, keen touches of irony that charm an enlightened audience. The curtain falls amidst a storm of applause. The pit, always foremost in the
appreciation of an intellectual treat, rises in its enthusiasm as Frederick Selwyn, the Leander, leads Myra Brandreth before the curtain. Bouquets shoot, rocket-like, through the air, whence none can discover, but seemingly from the latticed gallery that runs round the upper circle. After the actors and scene-painter have been called, some friendly soul remembers the author, and Mr. Westray is loudly demanded. Herman goes round to Lord Earlswood's box, whence he honours the British public with a languid and somewhat supercilious bow.
'Do you think it's a success?' asks his lordship, with the air of a man who rarely trusts himself to arrive at an opinion singlehanded.
They're making a good deal of noise,' answers Herman languidly—he is always languid with Lord Earlswood-' but that's apt to be fallacious. I believe, as a rule, the pieces that seem doubtful on first nights pay best in the long-run.'
'Brandreth was magnificent,' says the landlord of the Frivolity. 'I daresay the play is very clever from a literary standpoint; but, as a matter of personal taste, I should have preferred opéra bouffe, or a modern drama, with Brandreth poisoning herself in a ridinghabit, and rolling about the floor. I saw that done somewhere last year, and it took immensely. H'wever, she was great in your last
'Mrs. Brandreth's acting was simply superb throughout,' replies Herman, with a tone of respect so pointed as to be a reproof. Lord Earlswood is, however, not accessible to such delicate correction.
'Yes,' he drawls, Brandreth is a first-rate all-round actress; but I think this piece of yours shoots over the heads of your audience. One's obliged to keep one's mind on the stretch in order to understand it.'
'That depends upon the size of one's mind,' answers Herman
coolly; small minds naturally require stretching.'
'Haw!' exclaims his lordship, with a laugh like a single knock, loud, startling, monosyllabic; that's not bad. Shall we go round
and see Brandreth?'
Certainly. I must lose no time in acknowledging my obliga
tions to her.'
There is a neat little green-baize door just outside Lord Earlswood's box, which opens on to the prompt side of the stage. His lordship made this door an essential feature in the architect's plan, and stipulated for a private key of the same, and the box adjacent thereto, before he signed the lease which has made Mrs. Brandreth actual mistress of the theatre. He uses his key to-night with a sidelong glance of triumph at Herman; but although Herman has been admitted to the manageress's dressing-room, Lord Earlswood dare go no farther than the greenroom.
It is a pretty little room, with a large looking-glass reaching from floor to ceiling at one end, in which the actors and actresses may survey their toilettes and themselves. A low chintz-covered divan runs round the rest of the room; lithographed portraits of French and English actors adorn the walls; a majolica jardinière in the centre is filled with Mrs. Brandreth's bouquets-floral tributes, which she has left there in disdainful carelessness.
A door opens from the greenroom to the manageress's dressingroom, and the greenroom is within a step or two of the prompt entrance. The rest of the performers are accommodated in upper chambers, on a level with the gallery, and agreeably warmed by the heated air ascending from the lower part of the house.
'Never mind; perhaps when we go to heaven we shall all be manageresses, and have ivory toilette-tables,' says Minnie Walters, the little burlesque actress, as she stands before her two-and-sixpenny looking-glass, dabbing a final coat of prepared chalk upon her pert little nose, while old Mrs. Humpsby the dresser grins approvingly.
Mrs. Brandreth is dressing; so the two gentlemen wait, and stare at the people dressed for the burlesque, who run in to scrutinise their new costumes in the big mirror-girl cavaliers in satin trunks and satin boots, low comedians with false noses of cotton-wool, mythological, fairylandish, and so on.
'What a lot of people!' cries Lord Earlswood; 'I'm afraid it's an expensive company.'
'I shouldn't wonder if it were,' answers Herman dryly.
It seems to him that this theatre is the most costly toy that ever a man made for himself. It has cost Myra Brandreth her reputation already, and has associated her name with Lord Earlswood's to the end of time, or at least to the end of the time we live in, which is pretty much the same thing. When a man has been dead as long as Homer, it must be of small consequence what the world thinks of him.
The two gentlemen wait for a time that seems long to both; but at last the door opens, and Mrs. Brandreth appears in a dark-green cloth dress, made as neatly and as plainly as a riding-habit, and with a sealskin jacket hanging across her arm. A small sealskin hat crowns her dark hair; not a feather, not an ornament is visible. She wears a linen collar, linen cuffs, gloves the colour of her dress. Mrs. Brandreth has too much taste to trail elaborately-trimmed silks or velvets about the side-scenes of a theatre.
That's a capital cross-country get-up, Mrs. Brandreth,' says Lord Earlswood approvingly. Allow me to congratulate you on your performance. It must have surprised your greatest admirers.' Thanks. I'm glad you were pleased,' with the briefest glance and smile; and then, turning to Herman, she asks earnestly, Were you satisfied?'
You have made my piece,' he answers warmly.
'I never acted in a play of yours before-think of that!' 'And I never had a character of mine so interpreted. You breathed a soul into my mould of clay.'
She gives him a look which glorifies her pale face-very pale after the excitement of the evening-a look which arouses as much jealousy in Lord Earlswood as that gentleman's limited capacity for passion or suffering will allow. He is of a somewhat lukewarm temperament by nature, cooled down almost to freezing-point by education. But he thinks it would be a rather nice thing for Myra Brandreth to be something more to him than a popular actress, and he pursues her with as much energy as he is capable of infusing into any action of his life. This building a theatre for her has been the gratification of his last fancy, and has served to occupy that scantily-furnished chamber which he calls his mind. He has a great deal of money, and finds his chief enjoyment in getting rid of it. He has built yachts and kept racehorses-and the only novel amusement left for him has been to build a theatre.
There is a good deal said about the play and the house, the effect of the decorations with a full auditorium, and Mr. Pipp the architect is praised for his perforated Moorish dome.
'Makes the theatre look rather like a parrot-cage,' says Lord Earlswood, who imitates Horace in his incapacity for admiration, 'but it's rather a nice idea, I daresay. Jokes-fellow who wrote about the house in the Builder-said it was good, and a builderfellow ought to understand that kind of thing.'
'We shall call a rehearsal for twelve o'clock on Monday,' Mrs. Brandreth says, turning to Herman. If there is any alteration you would like-'
'There is none. Your acting was simply perfect, and the other characters were very good. I think we might apply the pruningknife judiciously to some of the dialogue-when you are off the stage.'
'You will come on Monday, then ?'
Good-night, Lord Earlswood,' says his lordship's tenant, with a certain careless graciousness not altogether flattering to Algernon, Baron Earlswood.
Going away so soon?' he exclaims.
It is nearly eleven, and I am rather tired. Good-night, Mr. Westray.'
She shakes hands with both gentlemen languidly, and both accompany her to her carriage, which is waiting at the stage-door. It is the neatest and quietest of broughams, the coachman middleaged, puritanical in the simplicity of his dark-blue overcoat.
If you could call on me to-morrow,' says Mrs. Brandreth, as