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The Understudy by Mary Cholmondeley

 

    The only form of human love that atrophies the heart is the love
    of self.

Marion Wright sat in the centre seat of the third row of the stalls, shivering in spite of her sables. It was the dress rehearsal of her first play, that play on which she had spent herself to the verge of mental bankruptcy.

The nauseating presentiment of failure, the distaste and scorn of her own work, were upon her, which the artist never escapes, which return as acutely after twenty successes as in the hours of suspense before the first essay. Marion's surroundings were not of a nature to reassure her. To her unaccustomed eyes the empty, dimly lit theatre, swathed and bandaged in dust-sheets, looked ominously dreary. Had any one ever laughed in this shrouded desert? The long lines of stalls huddled under their wrinkled coverings stretched before and behind her. The boxes were shapeless holes of pallid grime. It was as if a London fog had trailed its dingy veil over everything. There was a fog outside as well, and the few electric lights which had been turned up peered blurred and yellow. An immense ladder, three ladders tied together, reared itself from the stalls to the roof. Something was being done to the lights on the ceiling. Tired-looking men in overcoats were creeping into the orchestra, thrusting white faces under screened lights, and rustling papers on stands.

Marion had the theatre to herself except for a few whisperers in the back row of the stalls—her maid, an attendant, one or two actors of minor parts who did not appear in the first act, and a few costumiers.

It was fiercely cold, and she had not slept for several nights. She wished she had never been born.

A magnificent-looking woman, wearing her chin tilted slightly upwards, was squeezing herself and an immense fur coat towards her along the stalls, and sat down beside her. This was Lenore, the leading lady.

She turned a colourless, beautifully shaped face and heavy eyes with bistred lashes towards Marion.

“I suppose we shall have to wait about two hours for Mr. Montgomery,” she said apathetically.

“Does he always keep people waiting?”

“Always, since he made his great hit in The Deodars.”

There was a moment's silence.

“Mr. Montgomery does not like his part,” said the leading lady tentatively, hanging a hand in an interminable white glove over the back of the stall in front of her.

Marion's face hardened.

“It's not a sympathetic part,” she said, “but an artist ought not to think of that.”

“No, it's not sympathetic,” acquiesced Lenore, turning up her fur collar. “It seems as if the principal man's part never is sympathetic in a woman's play. If the central figure is a woman, the men grouped round her are generally prize specimens of worms. I wonder why. In your play, now, Maggie's everything! George does not count for much, as far as I can see. Even Maggie had not much use for him.”

“She loved him,” said the author, with asperity.

“Did she? Sometimes when I'm playing Maggie to Montgomery's George I wonder if she did. And I just wonder now and then if I would have thrown him over as she did. I mean for good and all. It seems to me—if she'd cared for him, cared really, you know——”

“She did,” interposed Marion harshly.

“Wouldn't she have quarrelled and made it up again? Would she have been quite so hard on him?”

“Yes, she would. Think, just think what she must have suffered in the third act, the scene at the Savoy, when, loving him as she did, trusting him as she did, she saw him come in with——”

“Well, I expect you know best,” said Lenore, whose interest seemed to flag suddenly; “anyhow, she suffered, poor thing. Women like her always do, I think.” She rose slowly. “I may as well go and dress. I suppose we shall be here till midnight.”

The orchestra struck up.

“Anyhow, she suffered.”

The violins caught up the words and dinned them over and over again into Marion's ears. Women like Maggie, women with deep hearts like herself—for was not Maggie herself?—they always suffered, always suffered, always!—said the violins.

The manager suddenly appeared in front of the curtain and walked swiftly over the little bridge from the stage to the stalls. He was a small, sturdy, thin-lipped, choleric man, who looked as if he were made up of energy; energy distilled and bottled. Some one had said of him that his hat was really a glass stopper, which might fly off at any moment.

It was off now. There had evidently been an explosion. He held a note in his hand.

“Montgomery has given up the part,” he said. “He was odd at rehearsal yesterday. I felt there was something wrong. He said he had no show. Now he says he's too ill to come—bronchitis.”

The sense of disaster which had been hanging over Marion all day slipped and engulfed her like an avalanche. She felt paralysed.

“Then the play can't go on?” she said.

“If it had to happen, better to-night than to-morrow night,” said the manager. “Montgomery is as slippery as an eel. I don't suppose he has got bronchitis; but I have no doubt if I rushed over there at this moment, I should find him in bed with a steam-kettle. He would play the part.”

“What will you do?” gasped Marion.

“Do?” he said. “Do? There's only one thing to do. Go through with the play! It will start in two minutes, and we shall see what the understudy can make of it. He's as clever as he can stick, and he's word perfect, at any rate.”

“Who is he?”

“A Mr. Delacour; at least, that's his stage name. He's been in America for the last five years. Clever enough, but a rolling stone. He's not to be depended on, poor devil; but it's Hobson's choice—we've got to depend on him.”

The manager sat down beside her and clapped his hands.

The lights suddenly burned up behind the curtain, the curtain rose and the play began.

Some plays, some books, some men and women, possess a mysterious force which, for lack of a better word, we call vitality. Those who possess it not call it by all manner of ugly names. But, nevertheless, it is the great gift, the power that overcomes, which makes life on a large scale possible, which makes the soldier, the lover, the saint, possible. Most of us are only half alive. Our work is half dead. We deal in creep-mouse sentiment, and call it love. We write pathetically of our impotence to live, and call it resignation. We who have never been young, compare notes with each other on how to remain senile, and call it the art of growing old.

But others go through life, and spend themselves on it, piece by piece, with ardour as they go. These are the teachers—only they never teach. They know. If we want to learn anything, we can watch them. And some of us, again—and this is the hardest fate of all—come into life inadequately equipped, not provisioned for a prolonged journey. What little we have, and what little there is of us, we expend on the first part of life, and having nothing left for middle age.

Such a woman was Marion. She had talent, and she had, besides—as the manager beside her had divined—one live play in her. But he doubted whether she had more than one. She looked insolvent, a dweller in the past, crippled by an acute memory. No doubt it was this self-regarding memory which had resulted in the play. It was obviously a personal experience, and as she was rich enough to share the risk of producing it, he was more than ready to put it on. It was full of faults; it was melodramatic, it was amateurish, but it was passionately alive. The pit and the gallery would love it; and if the stalls found it a little cheap, what of that? He had considerable flair. He believed it would succeed.

He glanced once or twice furtively at the handsome, unhappy-looking, richly furred woman beside him—no longer young, “past youth, but not past passion,” with much of the charm of youth lingering in her graceful erectness, her pretty hair, her delicate pallor.

She had told him feverishly that the only thing she cared for—had ever cared for—was art, success, fame. He had heard something like it often before.

He wished, with a half-sigh, that a little of that uneasy, egotistic ambition might have been instilled into the heart of Lenore, for whom he had a compassionate, bottled-up attachment of many years' standing.

Poor Lenore! What an actress, and what a hopelessly womanly woman, still mourning the providential demise of an impossible brother who had lived on her.

She was on the stage now, looking about seventeen, all youth and garden hat and white muslin.

Marion's face twitched. She was living her own youth over again.

There was a pause. Lenore picked a rose to gain time, and looked into the wings.

“Delacour!” roared the manager, bouncing up in his stall and then sitting down again.

“We cut it here,” said Lenore, advancing to the footlights, “and he doesn't know. It is not his fault. He's waiting for his cue. See, Mr. Delacour! Leave out that bit about the daisies, and come on at 'happiness.'”

The understudy came on, and Marion's heart thrust suddenly at her like a rapier, and left her for dead, staring in front of her.

This was no understudy. This was the original George of the drama when it was first acted. Marion saw the lover of her youth come on and kiss Lenore's hand, with the same gesture with which he had once kissed hers—in the sunshine, in a Kentish garden, beside a lavender bush, with a bumble bee in it, ten endless years ago.

He was hardly changed—a little thinner, perhaps, but not a day older in his paint; the same reckless, debonair creature whom Marion had loved, who had wounded her and grieved her, whom she had discarded at last with bitter anger, whom she had never forgotten, whom she remembered with anguish.

The curtain was down before she recovered herself, and the conductor was waving his baton.

The manager turned to her with some excitement.

“If only he can keep it up!” he said. “Delacour puts life into the love-making. He makes love well, don't you think?”

“Admirably.”

“If only he can keep it up!” repeated the manager.

Through the two acts which followed, the understudy kept it up. He did more. He acted with an intensity that made the rest of the play somewhat colourless. At the end of the scene at the Savoy, just before the curtain fell, he added a sentence of his own.

In a second, before she knew what she had done, Marion had sprung to her feet, and had said in a harsh, loud voice:

“That last sentence is not in the part.”

The play stopped. The hurrying waiters with dishes stood stock still and gaped, as astonished as if the interruption had been in real life. Some of the supers at the little tables in the background got up to see what was happening.

Delacour, wineglass in hand, came forward to the footlights, and their eyes met.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “You say it is not in the part. I thought it was. I will omit it in future.”

“You will do no such thing!” bawled the manager, leaping to his feet and shaking his fist at him. “Omit it! Why, Miss Wright, it's an inspiration. Gets him the whole sympathy just at the critical moment. And what a curtain! Good God! What a curtain!”

“Isn't it?” said Lenore. “Leave out my bit at the end altogether, and make that the curtain. Don't you agree, Miss Wright? And, look here, Mr. Delacour, take the front centre here.”

“Start again at 'falsehood,'“ said the manager briskly to Lenore. “Now, then, everybody. Sit down at the back there. Now——”

The play started again. Marion, astonished at her own violence, ashamed, shattered by conflicting emotions, speechless, could only bow her approval of the change, not that the manager cared a pin whether she approved or not.

Was Delacour acting? Marion knew that he was not. And as the play proceeded it changed in character. The words were the words she had written. Many of them were the words he had used himself, but his passion transformed them. They took on a new meaning. It was Maggie who was becoming a mean figure in spite of her grandiloquence—perhaps because of it. Her rigid principles, her petty, egotistic pride, her faultless demeanour jarred on the audience. Lenore, like a true artist, caught the novel side of the situation and emphasised it. Her Maggie dwindled, dwindled, until the man held the stage alone, dominated it. Marion had never before seen his side of the miserable drama in which her happiness had made shipwreck, had never before seen her own character in this light. It was as if he were saying the truth at last, defending himself at last—which he had never done in real life.

Finally repulsed, silent under her scornful invective, Delacour gathered himself together and went off magnificent in defeat.

The curtain fell for the last time.

The tiny audience, strengthened by the rest of the cast who were not needed in the final scene, broke into rapturous applause. The manager, excited and radiant, clapped with the rest.

“He's immense. He's immense!” he kept on saying. “Delacour's the making of it. He's immense! Hang Montgomery! He may have bronchitis till he's blue. Delacour makes the play. I will fetch him!”

He disappeared behind the curtain, and in a few minutes reappeared, dragging Delacour with him to introduce him to Marion.

“We have met before,” she said faintly, putting out her hand.

“Did we ever really meet?” he said gently, taking it for a second in his.

He seemed quite exhausted. Now that she saw him close at hand, he looked much older. And his face was grievously lined, deteriorated.

She tried to thank him, to express her gratitude for the way he had extricated them from a great difficulty; but her words were so hesitating and frigid that the manager broke in, shaking him warmly by the hand.

Delacour bowed his thanks, murmured something conventional, and was gone.

Every one was in a hurry to go, too. Marion remained a moment longer talking to the manager, and then they went together through the royal box to the private entrance, where her brougham was waiting. Just as they reached it, he was called away, and an attendant let her out.

Waiting beside her brougham, in the rain, holding the door for her, was Delacour, in a shabby overcoat, his hat in his hand.

Again their eyes met in a long look. His, sombre, melancholy, humble, had a great appeal in them.

She seemed encased in some steel armour, which made movement and speech wellnigh impossible. She thanked him inaudibly.

He shut the door, said “Home” to the coachman, and turned away.

The carriage drove off.

Then something in Marion snapped. Her other self, the poor woman in her whom she had denied and starved and brow-beaten, pounced upon her and called out suddenly, desperately:

“Forgive him. What is life without him? Think of the last ten years. Has there been one day in all those grinding years when you have not longed to see him? Has there ever been one day when you would not have given up your ease and luxury for a cottage with him? And now he has come back into your life. He still loves you. Are you going to lose him again? You were vindictive, and you know it. Go back now and kneel down in the wet street and ask him to forgive you. Quick! quick!—before it is too late.”

The other woman in her, the woman who had discarded him, stopped her ears.

“No, no; I had good reasons for breaking with him. They hold as good to-day as ten years ago.”

“Very well,” said the other scornfully. “Then never dare to tell yourself again that you ever loved him. Let that lie cease. Your love was only pretty words and pride and self-seeking, and a miserable streak of passion. What do you care what happens to him? Don't go back. You don't care for him. You never cared. Never, never. And he knows it. He is telling himself so now—at this moment.”

She stopped the brougham. She trembled so much that she could hardly tell the man to drive back to the theatre. He turned slowly, the horse evidently reluctant, and in a few minutes she was once more at the private entrance. The door was closed. No one was to be seen in the little cul de sac. The lamp over the door was out. She got out and rang—once, twice, and yet again. Then she realised that every one else had hurried away as precipitately as she had done, for the dawn was already in the sky. She dragged herself back into her carriage and drove home, shaking in every limb.

After all, it did not matter. She would get his address from the manager first thing to-morrow, and go straight on and see him, and sacrifice her pride, and beseech him to take her back. She had been too proud. She saw that at last. She would say so. She saw at last that resentment is disloyalty. She would say so. She was so sick of her present life that she would say anything. And he loved her still, thank God! And—thank God, too—she was rich. And it was obvious that he was poor. She had much to share with him. And she was still attractive. Other men still wished to marry her. She was pretty, still. All that she had, all that she still was, she would give him. And this long nightmare of the last ten years would pass at last, as that other nightmare of her youth had passed—her wretched home, with a drunken father and a heartbroken mother. That had passed, though at the time it had seemed as if it would endure for ever. Her parents had died, and her vulgar, kindly, rich aunt had adopted her. And now this second nightmare was at an end, too. The ache would go out of her life, the long daily hunger and thirst would cease. There would be no more dreadful homecomings after evenings of amusement; no more sick recoil and despair at waking and seeing the pale finger of the dawn upon the blind. She would be happy at last.

Marion cried herself to sleep that night. Next morning, as early as she dared, she was at the theatre. The manager was going through his usual paroxysm of anxiety and ill-temper which preceded a first night. He could hardly find time for a word with her. There was a hitch in the scenery of the last act; the lighting was not yet repaired; one of the actors of the minor parts was ill, for whom an understudy had not been provided; and the head scene-shifter had sprained his wrist.

“I won't keep you,” said Marion, as he hurried up, fuming; “I only want Mr. Delacour's address. I should like to see him at once—to—to talk to him about his part. There are a few points——”

“Delacour's address?” said the manager. “Don't know it. Oh, yes, of course!” He tore a little notebook out of his pocket. Then he suddenly looked up at her. “Don't go to him. Send for him, if you like, or see him here. He'll be here in an hour—at least, he will be if Smith is worth his salt. I've bribed him to keep a lynx eye on him day and night, and bring him up to time. But don't go and see him. I suppose you know he——”

“He's married?” gasped Marion.

The manager laughed scornfully.

“He drinks, my dear lady. He drinks. He's only just out of an inebriates' home. But don't alarm yourself. If he's watched, I dare say we shall manage all right. I hope to goodness we shall! Don't look so scared. Smith has charge of him, and he is accustomed to the job. He was quite sober last night. I hear he always is after an outbreak. You're going home? Well, I think you're right. Yes, very cold here now. Quite right not to stop. See you again later.”

Marion drove home and shut herself up in her room. There was no need to lock the door. She was alone in the world, alone in her handsome, empty house, where she had always been alone, even before her aunt died and left it to her.... She would always be alone now. Only yesterday she had hoped—what had she not hoped! She had seen him there in imagination changing this weary house into a home, brilliant and faulty as ever, lovable as ever, beloved as ever, surrounded by her lavished adoration. She had seen their children running along its wide passages, playing in its empty hall.

And now.

He drank.

She shuddered. She had seen drink once. She knew. Never while she lived would she forget what her home had been like. The past crowded back upon her with all its vileness and nausea, all its unspeakable degradation and violence, wrapped up with maudlin sentiment and cheap tears. The sweat stood on her forehead.

What an escape she had had! To think that if it had not been for that chance word of the manager's she would by now have pledged herself irrevocably to a drunkard, waded back into the slough from which she had emerged. Oh, what a merciful fate it had been, after all, which had parted them! How faithless she had been all these years! How little she had realised how the divine love and wisdom had watched over her, had shielded her!

“Oh! thank God! Thank God!” she groaned. The other self in her, the poor dying woman in her, arose on her deathbed and screamed to her, screamed insane things. If a certain voice is too long ignored, its dictates seem at last insane.

“Take him back all the same!” gasped the dying voice. “Marry him. Devote yourself to him, day and night. Cure him. Set him up. You love him. Love can do it, if anything can.”

“I can't do it,” groaned Marion. “Mother tried, but it was no good.”

“Then do as she did, try and fail.”

“I can't. He would break my heart.”

“Let him break it.”

Marion strangled the terrible, urgent voice with fury, and then cried as if her heart would indeed break. The silenced voice spoke no more.

       * * * * *

The play was a great success. Delacour, who had recently returned from America, was the making of it. Lenore was the first to acknowledge it, though his success was at her expense. Her part seemed only as a foil to the sombre splendour of his.

The play ran and ran.

Delacour made no further effort to speak to Marion. He avoided her systematically. He, on his side, was watched, was spied on, was protected from himself, was never given a chance of yielding to temptation. His self-imposed gaoler loved him. He was very lovable. The manager was enthusiastic. Ignorant people said he was reformed. It almost seemed as if he might grasp the great position to which his talent entitled him. But how often before he had fallen just when he was doing well! No one could depend on him. His record in America gradually became known. It was a record of hideous outbreaks and cancelled engagements.

By dint of the strenuous will of others, to which he yielded himself, he was kept on his feet through the whole run of the play.

And then, released from surveillance, exhausted in mind and body—he fell again.

He blazed like a comet across the theatrical world, and then set as suddenly as he had risen.

Marion heard of it and shuddered. She had had a narrow escape.

       * * * * *

She never wrote another play—at least, she never wrote another that pleased a manager. She said she had not time. In spite of her success, she felt a distaste for things theatrical. And perhaps she found that success is not as warm a garment for a shivering life as she had expected. There is a little fleecy wrap called affection, within the reach of all of us, which she might have donned. But, as she often said, there was, unfortunately, no one for whom she had much affection. She was alone in the world. Her interest in the theatre was gradually replaced by religion. Once she heard with real regret that Lenore had lost her memory, and chloral was hinted at as the cause. She thought of trying to save her, of making an earnest appeal to that better self which, according to Marion, exists in all of us. But when she made further inquiries about her, with a view to rescuing her, she was daunted by the discovery that Lenore had been privately married to Delacour for some time past, and that her declension, which was really due to drink, dated from the time of the marriage.

A year passed. Delacour began to make fitful reappearances, then more frequent ones. He took and kept regular engagements. But his wife returned no more.

Presently Marion's own play was revived with success. It was one of Delacour's greatest parts. And Marion went to see it, hidden behind the curtains of her box.

The years since she had last sat in that box had not dealt kindly with her. Her discontented face showed that she was one of the many victims of arrested development, still hampered in middle age by the egotistic longings of youth. In youth we all want to receive instead of to give, to be loved, to be served, to be admired. Middle age is the time to reverse engines, the time to love, to serve, to give rather than to receive. Marion had not learned that elementary lesson of life. We all recognise them at sight, the nervous, fretful faces of the middle-aged men and women who want to be loved. And love knows them, too, and—flies them.

The manager, somewhat pinched and grizzled, as from a long fast, came in to see her between the acts, and growled out his disapproval of his leading lady.

“She's nothing to Lenore,” he said.

“Is she too”—Marion sought for a charitable word—“too ill to act?”

“She is too ill to act,” said the manager. “She will never act any more. She is dying.”

There was a silence.

“She is dying of drink,” he said; “and if there is such a place as heaven, she is very near it. And if there is such a person as God, I hope she will say a word for me when she gets there.”

Marion did not speak. She was horrified.

“She would marry Delacour,” said the manager. “I begged her to marry me. Over and over again I asked her. But she said I could do without her, and Delacour couldn't. They fell in love with each other at this very play when it was first put on. I saw it coming, and it spelt disaster for her. But it was the real thing; and when the real thing comes, we all have to knock under to it. It doesn't come often. Most of us are quite incapable of it. I have only seen it once or twice. I dare say I have never felt it, though I should have liked to take care of Lenore, and not let her work so hard, and make a garden for her. She loves flowers and running water. I made the garden just on the chance, but she has never seen it. Down in Sussex it is, with a little old-world cottage in it. It is a pretty place. Pergola; small cascade with rustic bridge; fishpond, with green-tiled floor to show up the gold-fish. And a rose garden. I should have liked her to see it. But she and Delacour! It was like a thing in a book. They fell in love, and he behaved well. He wouldn't marry her. He said he knew he couldn't cure himself of drink—that his will was too weak. But she was determined to marry him. She said her will was strong enough for both of them. I don't know about her will. I think it was her love which was strong enough. He gave in at last and married her. I know I shouldn't have held out as long as he did. And for a little while things went well. He was at her feet. He told me it was the first time any woman had ever cared for him. For a little while I almost hoped—and then, in spite of his love for her, in spite of everything, he began to drink again. Then she told him that what he drank she should drink, and she stuck to it. If he drank, she drank the same. If he 'nipped,' she did the same. When he got drunk, she got drunk. It was kill or cure. And he loved her. That was her hold over him. It took time, but she broke him of it. He suffered too much seeing her kill herself for his sake, and it steadied him. He had to give it up.”

“Then, now—why doesn't she give it up, too?”

“She can't,” said the manager, his face twitching. “She was too far gone by the time he was cured. She had not his physique. She was absolutely played out. She is dying, and they both know it. But she does not mind. She has saved him. That was the point. She is perfectly happy. She does not care about anything else. He is a great actor. She has lived to see him recognised. Some women wouldn't have risked it. But I suppose a woman will take any risk if she loves, at least, women like Lenore will.”

“And does he—in spite of this—does he love her still?” said Marion, with dry lips.

The manager was silent.

“I did not think any one could care as much for Lenore as I did,” he said at last, “but Delacour does—he cares more.”

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index