Court Royal/Chapter XXIX

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXIX. Two Stage Boxes

It is impossible in words to describe the tumult of excitement, pride, admiration, in Joanna’s bosom, as she took her place in the left stage box at the Plymouth Theatre Royal. She had never been in a theatre before. Her highest ambition had been to battle for herself a way to the front in the gallery. She occupied the most luxurious and expensive place in the theatre. She was dressed so beautifully that her head was turned. The pink silk was nothing to the dress she now wore, crimson velvet and cream-coloured silk, the latter exquisitely hand-embroidered. Her neck, her bosom, her head, were profusely adorned with diamonds. It was a marvel to Joanna whence the Jew had got them all. She wore rings on all her fingers; if the rings were too large, a little silk wound inside enabled her to wear them. She looked with astonishment at the foot-lights, at the orchestra where the players were tuning, at that great mystery, the curtain. Then she turned to examine the audience. The gallery and the pit were packed; in the dress circle were about twenty persons, and in the stalls perhaps a dozen. A poor house, a house to take the heart out of an actor. Joanna could not understand it. The rich have money, why do they not come? The poor do not grudge their shillings and sixpences.

Joanna attracted the attention of the house. Opera-glasses were directed towards her. She saw those in the stalls put their heads together, and she knew they were asking each other who she was. She was conscious that she was being admired, and to enable the people to see her better she stood up.

Lazarus was in evening dress, sitting back, facing the stage, so that he was invisible; it was hardly likely he would have been recognised. An evening suit had completely transformed him. Besides, those who attended the theatre were not his clients. He did not shrink from being seen; he was indifferent.

‘Sit down, Joanna. How can you behave so strangely?’ he said.

‘No one could see my velvet bag with old Dutch silver clasps and chain and belt unless I stood up,’ she answered.

‘Perhaps you would like to stand up on the breasting of the box, to let folks see your red shoes?’

‘I shouldn’t mind,’ said Joanna.

‘But I do. Sit down and be quiet. The orchestra are going to begin. I did not bring you here to make a fool of yourself.’

‘Very well, master. I’ll fan myself, and then they can see my bracelets.’

Joanna was like a child with a box of new toys. She looked at herself in the little strip of mirror in the box, she played with and admired her jewelry, she took peeps at her feet shod in crimson satin shoes, she pressed back her chin to be able to see the glitter of a diamond brooch on her bosom. One bitter disappointment she had been forced to endure. She had desired to appear in low dress, but on trying one on, it was found that the contrast in colour between her face and one half of her neck and her bosom, and the other half of her neck, was too startling to allow of her thus appearing.

A tap at the door behind, and a gentleman entered the box. Joanna uttered a cry of delight, and took several stops to meet him. The gentleman was Charles Cheek.

‘Why, Joanna!’ he exclaimed, ‘you here, in the royal box, as queen of beauty, wearing all the Crown jewels stolen by Lazarus from the Tower!’

‘I am glad to see you again,’ she said heartily. ‘Here is a chair, sit down beside me and talk till the play begins, and then be mum.’

‘I was in the stalls. I could hardly believe my eyes,’ he said, ‘but I looked and looked through my glasses till I had nearly satisfied myself you were my little friend of the roof-tree, when Lazarus’s nose came round the corner, and a bit of a cheek-bone, and then I was sure.—What has induced you, Father Abraham, to come here dressed like a Christian? Have you brought the girl to show off a set of diamonds you want to sell?’

‘I’ve brought her here,’ answered the Jew, ‘because I am a generous and indulgent master. She saved my house from fire and from burglars, and has deserved a treat for other services she has rendered me, so I have stepped out of my usual course of life to indulge her.’

‘Do you often come to the play?’ asked Joanna.

‘Very often. I would come always if I thought you would be here.’

‘Sit down, and don’t throw foolish speeches at me which you do not mean. I am so glad to see you again. Do you know, I have learned to dance since I saw you last—waltz, and cotillon, and lancers, and quadrille,—these last very imperfectly for want of enough to make up sets; for want of persons we danced with chairs.’

‘Where have you been? Who taught you?’

‘Those are secrets which even you may not know.’

‘Why are you not in the pink silk and pearls I gave you?’

‘I am more splendid now; do look at me well. What do you think of this gown—pulled and slashed at the sleeves? is it not lovely, like a lady in an old painting? Look down at my shoes. They are sweet. Once, do you recollect, you laughed at me because I was in my stocking-soles, and there were holes in the stockings. Now there is not even a thread wrong in my stockings, and the shoes are simply lovely.’

‘Have you worn out the pink silk?’

‘No. Mr. Lazarus spilt salt water over it, and it is spoiled. He was forced to give me this instead.’

‘I!’ cried the Jew. ‘I have not given you this. Do not believe the girl, it is not true. The gown is hired for the night, at one guinea.’

‘Hold your tongues, both of you!’ said Joanna. ‘The overture has begun.’

The Jew was not particularly pleased at Charles Cheek appearing in the box and remaining there, but he could not tell him to leave. He drew back among the folds of the coloured hangings, with his eyes on the curtain, and looked sulky. Charles Cheek and Joanna entirely disregarded him.

‘I say,’ whispered the girl during the overture, ‘why are there so few persons in the more expensive seats?’

‘Because,’ answered the young man, ‘the better-class people despise provincial theatres; it is chic to do so. It means that they have seen things so much better done in London that they cannot endure what is inferior.’

‘But they lose great enjoyment by this nonsense.’

‘Of course they do, but——' He shrugged his shoulders.

‘Hush! Oh, do hush!’ exclaimed Joanna. ‘See! see!’

The curtain rose. Then she had eyes and ears only for the stage. In the third scene Juliet makes her first appearance. Lazarus had been moving uneasily through the two former. He bit his nails, wiped his brow, and became every moment paler. Then he put his hand forward, touched Mr. Cheek, and said somewhat roughly, ‘Excuse me, I want the front chair.’ The young man started, looked surprised, and at once surrendered the seat. ‘I am short-sighted,’ explained the Jew. Mr. Cheek bowed, and withdrew to his place in the stalls.

Joanna was annoyed, not so much at losing her companion as at the disturbance, distracting her attention from the play. She frowned, and tapped her fan impatiently on the cushion.

Lazarus sat beside her, his face turned towards the stage; she saw that it was cadaverous, and that his muscles twitched with nervousness.

Next moment she had forgotten him to observe Juliet. At the appearance of Mlle. Palma Kaminski, the famous Polish actress from the Imperial Theatre, Warsaw, the gallery burst into applause. The pit took up the applause; the clapping of hands, thumping of heels and umbrella ferrules on the floor for a minute brought the play to a standstill. The dress circle languidly patted its hands, the stalls remained unmoved.

In recognition of this reception, Mlle. Palma stepped forward to the footlights and curtseyed; as she did so, she raised her eyes and looked at the boxes for a moment; her eyes remained fixed on the stage box on her right only for a moment, and then she turned her head away without a token of emotion. Lazarus leaned back, his face quivering, his hands clenched. Their eyes had met.

Joanna observed the famous actress with the closest attention. This was Rachel—the beautiful Rachel whom Lazarus had loved, and who had wrecked his life. This was she who had so bewitched the Marquess that he had forgotten honour and right, and had run away with her to Sicily. Joanna was sufficiently near to see the make-up in her face, the paint, the powder, the antimony about the eyes, the rouge on the cheeks. She saw that Rachel was lovely, had been very lovely, but—fatal but—she was becoming stout.

Joanna laughed. The consciousness was borne in on her that she was herself more beautiful than this woman who had made two men miserable—who had broken two lives. The applause had just ceased, and a short silence succeeded before the performers resumed their dialogue. On that short interval of silence Joanna’s laugh broke, and instantly the beautiful actress looked at her. She looked intently, questioningly; then turned her eyes for a moment, only for a moment, on Lazarus.

None observed this but Joanna, not even Lazarus, who had drawn back and covered his eyes. There was something in the look that startled Joanna. The colour mounted and suffused her face and throat. Her pleasure in the play was gone; she wished she were away. She hid her arms lest the bracelets should be seen; she threw a kerchief round her neck to hide the chains. With a look the actress had revenged the laugh.

Joanna was not able to recover her interest in the play. She looked on, but her thoughts were elsewhere. She was glad that Lazarus had withdrawn and concealed himself in the shadow, leaning against the side of the box.

When the first act was over, she signed with her fan to Charles Cheek, and he came up from the stalls.

‘A poor company,’ said he, taking the seat she indicated. ‘I hold that the educated are quite right in staying away; in the provinces the star system is reduced to absurdity. What a stiff Lady Capulet! and a nurse without humour. Romeo is a stick. We have not seen yet what La Palma is made of. She is beautiful, but plump. A few years ago, may be, she was irresistible. Hollo, some vis-à-vis, I see.’

The box-keeper was introducing a party of two gentlemen and two ladies into the stage-box immediately opposite. Joanna at once recognised the Marquess of Saltcombe, the Rigsbys, and Miss Stokes. Lazarus, leaning back with his face to the curtain, did not notice the arrivals; Joanna glanced over her shoulder at him, and saw that he was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to look about him.

She fixed her eyes very attentively on the Marquess. He was serene, polite to Miss Rigsby, contending with the aunt which should hold the niece’s scarf of woven blue and crimson silk and gold fibre—an Indian manufacture.

The curtain rose; Romeo proceeded to climb the wall into Capulet’s garden. The lights were turned down, and a ray was cast, purporting to be that of the moon, on Juliet’s window. There was not sufficient light in the stage-box opposite for Joanna to see the face of Lord Saltcombe. The moonbeam was unsteady on Juliet’s window, and badly focussed. But when Juliet sighed ‘Ah me!’ she thought she saw him start. Joanna watched the box opposite throughout the scene far more closely than the stage.

The footlights were turned up for the next scene, that in Friar Laurence’s cell, and then Joanna was able to see the face of the Marquess. It was pale as death. Miss Rigsby leaned back in her chair and spoke to him as he was standing behind her, and he stooped and replied. He handed her a playbill, and pointed with his finger to something on it. Perhaps she had asked him who was the Romeo making such hot love to Juliet. Joanna saw that he maintained his composure outwardly. Only his deadly pallor showed how stirred he was within. He had come to the theatre with the Rigsbys, with whom he had dined, in complete ignorance of the fact that the Polish actress from Warsaw was Rachel Lazarus. Joanna turned to her master; she saw at a glance that he had recognised his enemy. His face was convulsed; he drew further back into the shadows, that he might not be seen.

Joanna looked from one man to the other. Here were two men, one at the head of the scale, the other at the foot—both the victims of one beautiful woman. ‘What power there is in woman for good or bad!’ thought Joanna. ‘For my part,’ she added to herself, ‘I would hurt no one—unless he got in my way.’

It amused the girl to notice the slightly foreign intonation in Juliet’s voice as she spoke. Knowing what she did of her origin, she was sure that this was put on to keep up the part of Pole Rachel had assumed. ‘She is clever,’ thought Joanna; ‘clever to control herself under the eyes of the two men she has ruined. But perhaps she has not as yet recognised the Marquess.’ The light was on her face, and he was in darkness. ‘I wonder what she will do when she does see him?’

‘Joanna,’ said the Jew, in a whisper that was hoarse and constrained, ‘I want to go. Get ready.’

She answered, ‘I am not going. I came for one play, and I am in for two.’

‘I am not well.’

‘Then get better. I am not going.’

During the scene in Capulet’s garden between Juliet and the nurse, Joanna watched the actress, but was unable to detect whether she had seen the Marquess or not. Once her eyes travelled in the direction of the stage-box on her left, but the glance was quick and passing, and no muscle of her face, no failure of her voice, gave sign that she had perceived her former lover.

The curtain fell on the second act; as it fell, one of the footlights flared and snapped the glass chimney that screened it. No one paid particular attention to it; the broken glass was not removed, a fresh chimney not added.

Charles Cheek brought Joanna an ice; he offered one to Lazarus, who refused with a shake of the head.

‘He is not well,’ said Joanna. ‘Leave him alone; he wants to go away, but I will not hear of it till the play is out. Don’t notice him. He will be better presently.’

‘I’ll get you a drop of brandy, Mr. Lazarus.’

The Jew nodded, and the good-natured young man hurried away to fetch a glass of spirits.

‘Do you know who those are opposite us?’ asked Mr. Charles Cheek, on his return. ‘I’ve heard one is the Marquess of Saltcombe, son of the Duke of Kingsbridge, and the other people are called Rigsbys. I don’t know anything about them.’

‘The Marquess is engaged to Miss Rigsby—that pasty young lady in magenta silk and pink roses in her hair. The person at her side is her aunt, and the brown man is her father. They are worth a great deal of money.’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘In the way of business,’ answered the girl, with an air of indifference.

‘I have heard enquiries on all sides as to who you are. People have been lost in wonder and admiration. What is your name? I must satisfy those who ask. I have been unable to do so out of ignorance.’

‘I am Miss Rosevere, an heiress,’ answered Joanna.

‘An heiress!’ echoed Charles Cheek, with a laugh.

‘Yes, sole heiress, executrix, and residuary legatee to Mr. Lazarus.’ She turned round to her master with a mischievous face. He was in no mood to answer.

‘How are you?’ asked the young man. ‘Better? Has the brandy revived you?’

Lazarus nodded.

‘So I may answer to enquiries that you are a Miss Rosevere?’

‘Yes. That is my name, though I don’t often have it mentioned. You may add—an orphan. Go back to your place in the stalls, and tell those who ask who I am. You need not add—slave to a Jew pawnbroker—pawned for ten shillings. Don’t say that, as you value my friendship.’ So she dismissed him, then leaned on the red velvet cushion, playing with her fan, looking about her, and watching what went on in the stage box opposite. Mr. Rigsby was in conversation with Lord Saltcombe; his voice was loud and harsh, and Joanna could almost catch what he said. He was talking about an amateur dramatic performance got up by the officers at Colombo. Some delay ensued before the curtain rose. The orchestra performed a selection from ‘Il Trovatore.’ A smell of oranges pervaded the theatre. The gods were devouring them in great quantities in the gallery, and throwing the peel over into the pit. A bald-headed gentleman was the object they particularly aimed at, and when an urchin succeeded in casting an entire ingeniously removed peel so as to light in a ring on his glossy skull, like a cap, the feat was uproariously applauded.

The noise only ceased when the curtain rose on a public place, and attention was arrested by the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt: those in the gallery were greatly disappointed that the former died off the stage, and only reconciled when Tybalt was killed by Romeo under their eyes.

The scene that followed gave less promise of amusement. Juliet appeared in her room, invoking the approach of night:—

   ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phœbus’ lodging.’

As she spoke her passionate monologue she came forward, and as she did so, the draught from her skirts made the jet of the broken footlight flare up.

‘There should be a wire net about eighteen inches off the lamps,’ said Mr. Rigsby. ‘I see none here, but in town it is so, is it not, Saltcombe?’

Lord Saltcombe bowed, he could not speak. Rachel’s eyes had met his at the exclamation, ‘Give me my Romeo.’ The nurse entered, bringing the rope-ladder and the news of the death of Tybalt, which she delivers so badly that Juliet for the moment supposes she is told of the loss of her lover. This is the first occasion on which an actress of any power can show passion. Palma rose to it. With a piercing cry that rang through the house she rushed forward, threw up her arms, and was convulsed with agony.

‘O break, my heart!—poor bankrupt, break at once!’

Then dashing her hands over her eyes,—

‘To prison, eyes! ne’er look on liberty.’
Stooping, gathering up the dust, then throwing it down, as into a grave at a funeral,—

‘Vile earth, to earth resign; end motion here:
And thou, and Romeo’——

She did not finish the sentence, the whole theatre rose with a cry of horror. The flame from the exposed jet had caught the white gauze of Juliet’s dress and danced up her skirt.

The agitation was indescribable. Women shrieked, men shouted. The curtain fell, and a smell of fire pervaded the atmosphere lately impregnated with the odour of oranges.

Miss Rigsby looked round.

The Marquess had uttered a cry of agony, and had fallen against the partition, with his hand to his brow. In another moment he dashed from the box and ran behind the scenes.

‘For mercy’s sake,’ he cried, ‘how is she? Where is she?’

The stage-manager brushed past him. The roar of voices mingled with cries beyond the curtain drowned his voice. The actors were in agitation. The commotion in the house ceased instantly when the manager appeared before the curtain.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, a most unfortunate accident has happened. I believe and trust there is no occasion for alarm.’ A burst of cheers. ‘Mlle. Palma Kaminska is not as seriously hurt as might have been anticipated.’ Renewed cheers. ‘I have to ask your kind indulgence; the performance must cease.’ He was himself so excited that he could hardly speak. His face was white, and his voice shook.

‘Where is she?’ asked the Marquess as the stage-manager stepped back.

‘She has been conveyed to her lodgings.’