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One of Us by Grace E. King

 

At the first glance one might have been inclined to doubt; but at the second anybody would have recognized her—that is, with a little mental rehabilitation: the bright little rouge spots in the hollow of her cheek, the eyebrows well accentuated with paint, the thin lips rose-tinted, and the dull, straight hair frizzed and curled and twisted and turned by that consummate rascal and artist, the official beautifier and rectifier of stage humanity, Robert, the opera coiffeur. Who in the world knows better than he the gulf between the real and the ideal, the limitations between the natural and the romantic?

Yes, one could see her, in that time-honored thin silk dress of hers stiffened into brocade by buckram underneath; the high, low-necked waist, hiding any evidences of breast, if there were such evidences to hide, and bringing the long neck into such faulty prominence; and the sleeves, crisp puffs of tulle divided by bands of red velvet, through which the poor lean arm runs like a wire, stringing them together like beads. Yes, it was she, the whilom dugazon of the opera troupe. Not that she ever was a dugazon, but that was what her voice once aspired to be: a dugazon manquee would better describe her.

What a ghost! But they always appeared like mere evaporations of real women. For what woman of flesh and blood can seriously maintain through life the role of sham attendant on sham sensations, and play public celebrant of other women's loves and lovers, singing, or rather saying, nothing more enlivening than: “Oh, madame!” and “Ah, madame!” and “Quelle ivresse!” or “Quelle horreur!” or, in recitative, detailing whatever dreary platitudes and inanities the librettist and Heaven connive to put upon the tongues of confidantes and attendants?

[Illustration: “TO POSE IN ABJECT PATIENCE AND AWKWARDNESS.”]

Looking at her—how it came over one! The music, the lights, the scene; the fat soprano confiding to her the fact of the “amour extreme" she bears for the tenor, to which she, the dugazon, does not even try to listen; her eyes wandering listlessly over the audience. The calorous secret out, and in her possession, how she stumbles over her train to the back of the stage, there to pose in abject patience and awkwardness, while the gallant baritone, touching his sword, and flinging his cape over his shoulder, defies the world and the tenor, who is just recovering from his “ut de poitrine” behind the scenes.

She was talking to me all the time, apologizing for the intrusion, explaining her mission, which involved a short story of her life, as women's intrusions and missions usually do. But my thoughts, also as usual, distracted me from listening, as so often they have distracted me from following what was perhaps more profitable.

The composer, of course, wastes no music upon her; flinging to her only an occasional recitative in two notes, but always ending in a reef of a scale, trill, or roulade, for her to wreck her voice on before the audience. The chef d'orchestre, if he is charitable, starts her off with a contribution from his own lusty lungs, and then she—oh, her voice is always thinner and more osseous than her arms, and her smile no more graceful than her train!

As well think of the simulated trees, water-falls, and chateaux leaving the stage, as the dugazon! One always imagines them singing on into dimness, dustiness, unsteadiness, and uselessness, until, like any other piece of stage property, they are at last put aside and simply left there at the end of some season—there seems to be a superstition against selling or burning useless and dilapidated stage property. As it came to me, the idea was not an impossibility. The last representation of the season is over. She, tired beyond judgment—haply, beyond feeling—by her tireless role, sinks upon her chair to rest in her dressing-room; sinks, further, to sleep. She has no maid. The troupe, hurrying away to France on the special train waiting not half a dozen blocks away, forget her—the insignificant are so easily forgotten! The porter, more tired, perhaps, than any one of the beautiful ideal world about him, and savoring already in advance the good onion-flavored grillade awaiting him at home, locks up everything fast and tight; the tighter and faster for the good fortnight's vacation he has promised himself.

No doubt if the old opera-house were ever cleaned out, just such a heap of stiff, wire-strung bones would be found, in some such hole as the dugazon's dressing-room, desiccating away in its last costume—perhaps in that very costume of Inez; and if one were venturesome enough to pass Allhallowe'en there, the spirit of those bones might be seen availing itself of the privilege of unasperged corpses to roam. Not singing, not talking—it is an anachronism to say that ghosts talk: their medium of communication must be pure thought; and one should be able to see their thoughts working, just as one sees the working of the digestive organs in the clear viscera of transparent animalcule. The hard thing of it is that ghosts are chained to the same scenes that chained their bodies, and when they sleep-walk, so to speak, it must be through phases of former existence. What a nightmare for them to go over once again the lived and done, the suffered and finished! What a comfort to wake up and find one's self dead, well dead!

I could have continued and put the whole opera troupe in “costume de ghost,” but I think it was the woman's eyes that drew me back to her face and her story. She had a sensible face, now that I observed her naturally, as it were; and her hands,—how I have agonized over those hands on the stage!—all knuckles and exaggerated veins, clutching her dress as she sang, or, petrified, outstretched to Leonore's “Pourquoi ces larmes?”—her hands were the hands of an honest, hard-working woman who buckrams her own skirts, and at need could scrub her own floor. Her face (my description following my wandering glance)—her face was careworn, almost to desuetude; not dissipation-worn, as, alas! the faces of the more gifted ladies of opera troupes too often are. There was no fattening in it of pastry, truffles, and bonbons; upon it none of the tracery left by nightly champagne tides and ripples; and consequently her figure, under her plain dress, had not that for display which the world has conventioned to call charms. Where a window-cord would hardly have sufficed to girdle Leonore, a necklace would have served her. She had not beauty enough to fear the flattering dangers of masculine snares and temptations,—or there may have been other reasons,—but as a wife—there was something about her that guaranteed it—she would have blossomed love and children as a fig-tree does figs.

In truth, she was just talking about children. The first part of her story had passed: her birthplace, education, situation; and now she was saying:

“I have always had the temptation, but I have always resisted it. Now,”—with a blush at her excuse,—“it may be your spring weather, your birds, your flowers, your sky—and your children in the streets. The longing came over me yesterday: I thought of it on the stage, I thought of it afterward—it was better than sleeping; and this morning”—her eyes moistened, she breathed excitedly—“I was determined. I gave up, I made inquiry, I was sent to you. Would it be possible? Would there be any place” (“any role,” she said first) “in any of your asylums, in any of your charitable institutions, for me? I would ask nothing but my clothes and food, and very little of that; the recompense would be the children—the little girl children,” with a smile—can you imagine the smile of a woman dreaming of children that might be? “Think! Never to have held a child in my arms more than a moment, never to have felt a child's arms about my neck! Never to have known a child! Born on a stage, my mother born on a stage!” Ah, there were tragic possibilities in that voice and movement! “Pardon, madam. You see how I repeat. And you must be very wearied hearing about me. But I could be their nurse and their servant. I would bathe and dress them, play with them, teach them their prayers; and when they are sick they would see no difference. They would not know but what their mother was there!”

Oh, she had her program all prepared; one could see that.

“And I would sing to them—no! no!” with a quick gesture, “nothing from the stage; little songs and lullabys I have picked up traveling around, and,” hesitating, “little things I have composed myself—little things that I thought children would like to hear some day.” What did she not unconsciously throw into those last words? “I dream of it,” she pursued, talking with as little regard to me as on the stage she sang to the prima donna. “Their little arms, their little faces, their little lips! And in an asylum there would be so many of them! When they cried and were in trouble I would take them in my lap, and I would say to them, with all sorts of tenderness—” She had arranged that in her program, too—all the minutiae of what she would say to them in their distress. But women are that way. When once they begin to love, their hearts are magnifying-lenses for them to feel through. “And my heart hungers to commence right here, now, at once! It seems to me I cannot wait. Ah, madam, no more stage, no more opera!” speaking quickly, feverishly. “As I said, it may be your beautiful spring, your flowers, your birds, and your numbers of children. I have always loved that place most where there are most children; and you have more children here than I ever saw anywhere. Children are so beautiful! It is strange, is it not, when you consider my life and my rearing?”

Her life, her rearing, how interesting they must have been! What a pity I had not listened more attentively!

“They say you have much to do with asylums here.”

Evidently, when roles do not exist in life for certain characters, God has to create them. And thus He had to create a role in an asylum for my friend, for so she became from the instant she spoke of children as she did. It was the poorest and neediest of asylums; and the poor little orphaned wretches—but it is better not to speak of them. How can God ever expect to rear children without their mothers!

But the role I craved to create for my friend was far different—some good, honest bourgeois interior, where lips are coarse and cheeks are ruddy, and where life is composed of real scenes, set to the real music of life, the homely successes and failures, and loves and hates, and embraces and tears, that fill out the orchestra of the heart; where romance and poetry abound au naturel; and where—yes, where children grow as thick as nature permits: the domestic interior of the opera porter, for instance, or the clockmaker over the way. But what a loss the orphan-asylum would have suffered, and the dreary lacking there would have been in the lives of the children! For there must have been moments in the lives of the children in that asylum when they felt, awake, as they felt in their sleep when they dreamed their mothers were about them.

 
 
 

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