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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER II. BEHIND THE SCENES.
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James Penwyn and Maurice Clissold went to the Eborsham Theatre as soon as they had eaten their dinner and smoked a single cigar apiece, lounging by the open window in the gloaming, talking over their afternoon's adventure.

'What a fellow you are, Jim!' cried Maurice, with a half-contemptuous, half-compassionate air, as for the foolishness of a child. 'To hear you go on about that scarecrow of a girl, one would suppose you had never seen a pretty woman in your life.'

'I never saw prettier eyes,' said James, 'and she has a manner that a fellow might easily fall in love with—so simple, so childish, so confiding.'

'Which means that she gazed with undisguised admiration upon the magnificent Squire Penwyn, of Penwyn Manor. A woman need only flatter you, Jim, for you to think her a Venus.'


'That poor little thing didn't flatter me. She's a great deal too innocent.'

'No, she only admired you innocently; opening those big blue eyes of hers to their widest in a gaze of rapture. Was it the locket, or the studs, or the moustache, I wonder, that struck her most?'

'Don't be a fool, Clissold. If we are to go to the theatre, we'd better not waste any more time. I want to see what kind of an actor our friend is.'

'Student of humanity,' jeered Maurice, 'even a provincial player is not beneath your notice. Cuvier was profound upon spiders. Penwyn has a mind of a wider range.'

'What is his name, by-the-bye?' mused James, thinking of Mr. Elgood. 'We don't even know his name, and we've asked him to supper. That's rather awkward, isn't it?'

'Be sure he will come. No doubt he has already speculated on the possibility of borrowing five pounds from you.'

Mr. Penwyn rang the bell and gave his orders with that easy air of a man unaccustomed to count34 the cost. The best supper the 'Waterfowl' could provide, at half-past eleven.

They walked along the lonely country road into Eborsham. The 'Waterfowl Inn' was upon one of the quietest, most obscure roads leading outside the city; not the great coach road to London, bordered for a mile beyond the town by snug villas, and band-boxical detached cottages—orderly homes of retired traders—but a by-road leading to a village or two, of no consequence save to the few humble folks who lived in them.

This road followed the wind of the river which traversed the lower end of Eborsham, and it was for its vicinity to the river, and a something picturesque in its aspect, that the two friends had chosen the 'Waterfowl' as their resting place. There was a small garden behind the inn which sloped to the edge of the stream, and a rustic summerhouse where the young men smoked their pipes after dinner.

Between the 'Waterfowl' and Eborsham the landscape was low and flat; on one side a narrow strip of marshy ground between road and river, with a scrubby brush here and there marking the boundary,35 on the other a tall neglected hedgerow at the top of a steep bank, divided from the road by a wide weedy ditch.

The two friends entered Eborsham through a Gothic archway called Lowgate. The old town had been a strongly fortified city, famous for its walls, and there were several of these stone gateways. The theatre stood in the angle of a small square, almost overshadowed by the mighty towers of the cathedral, as if the stage had gone to the church for sanctuary and protection from the intolerance of bigots.

Here Mr. Penwyn and Mr. Clissold placed themselves among the select few of the dress-circle, a cool and airy range of seats, whose sparsely scattered occupants listened with rapt attention to the gloomy prosings of 'The Stranger.' James Penwyn was not ravished by that Germanic drama. Even Mrs. Haller bored him. She dropped her h's, and expressed the emotions of grief and remorse by spasmodic chokings and catchings of her breath. But Mr. Penwyn lighted up a little when the Countess appeared, for the Countess had the large melancholy36 blue eyes of the girl he had met in the meadow.

Miss Elgood did not look her best on the stage. Tall, slim, and willow-waisted, sharp of elbow and angular of shoulder, dressed in cheap finery, soiled satin, tarnished silver lace, murky marabouts, badly painted with two dabs of rouge that were painfully visible upon the pure pale of her young cheeks. Artistically, Justina was a failure, and feeling herself a failure suffered from an inability to dispose of her arms, and a lurking conviction that the audience regarded her with loathing.

Mr. Clissold exchanged his front seat for a place on the hindmost bench before 'The Stranger' was halfway through his troubles, and here, secure in the shade, slept comfortably. James Penwyn endured two acts and a half, and then, remembering Mr. Elgood's offer to show him life behind the scenes, slipped quietly out of the dress-circle, and asked the boxkeeper how he was to get to the side scenes.

That official, sweetened by a liberal donation, unlocked a little door behind the proscenium box, a door sacred to the manager, and let Mr. Penwyn37 through into the mystic world of behind the scenes. He would hardly have done such a thing under a responsible lessee, but in a commonwealth morals become relaxed.

The mystic world looked dark and dusty, and smelt of gas and dirt, to the unaccustomed senses of Mr. Penwyn.

The voices on the stage sounded loud and harsh now that they were so near his ear. There was hardly room for him to move between the side scenes and the wall—indeed, it was only by screwing himself against this whitewashed wall that he made his way in the direction which a scene-shifter had indicated as the way to the green-room.

Mr. Penwyn's experience of life had never before led him behind the scenes. He had a vague idea that a green-room was a dazzling saloon, lighted by crystal chandeliers, lined with mirrors, furnished with divans of ruby velvet, an idealized copy of a club-house smoking-room. He found himself in a small dingy chamber, carpetless, curtainless, uncleanly, provided with narrow baize-covered benches and embellished with one cloudy looking-glass,38 on either side whereof flared an unscreened gas jet.

Here over the narrow wooden mantelshelf hung castes of pieces in preparation, 'Jack Sheppard,' 'Delicate Ground,' 'Courier of Lyons,' 'Box and Cox,' a wide range of dramatic art, and calls for next day's rehearsal. Here, in divers attitudes of weariness, lounged various members of the dramatic commonwealth; among them Mr. Elgood, in the frogged coat, crimson worsted pantaloons and Hessian boots of the Baron; and Justina, seated disconsolately, with her limp satin trailing over the narrow bench beside her, studying her part in the piece for to-morrow night.

'My dear sir,' exclaimed Matthew Elgood, shaking hands with enthusiasm, 'this is kind! Dempson,'—this to a gentleman in mufti, small, sallow, close-cropped, and smelling of stale tobacco—'this is my pioneer of to-day. Mr. Dempson, Mr.?—stay, we did not exchange cards.'

'Penwyn,' said James, smiling.

Mr. Elgood stared at the speaker curiously, as if he hardly believed his own ears, as if this39 name of Penwyn had some strange significance for him.

'Penwyn,' he repeated, 'that's a Cornish name isn't it?'

'By Tre, Pol, and Pen you may know the Cornish men. There is nothing more Cornish; I was born and brought up near London, but my race belongs to the Cornish soil. We were indigenous at Penwyn, I believe, the founders and earliest inhabitants of the settlement. Do you know Cornwall?'

'Not intimately. Merely as a traveller.'

'Were you ever at Penwyn?'

'I don't think so, I have no recollection.'

'Well, it's a place you might easily forget, not a promising locality for the exercise of your art. But you seemed struck by my name just now, as if you had heard it before.'

'I think I must have heard it somewhere, but I can't recall the occasion. Let that pass.' And with a majestic wave of the hand Mr. Elgood performed the ceremony of introduction.

'Mr. Dempson, Mr. Penwyn. Mr. Penwyn,40 Mr. Dempson. Mr. Dempson is our sometime manager, now a brother professional. He has resigned the round and top of sovereignty, and the carking cares of Saturday's treasury.'

Mr. Dempson assented to this statement with a plaintive sigh.

'A harassing profession, the drama, Mr. Penwyn,' he said. 'The many-headed is a monster of huge ingratitudes.'

James bowed assent.

'The provincial stage is in its decline, sir. Time was when this very theatre could be kept open for ten consecutive months in every year, to the profit of the manager, and when the good old comedies and the Shaksperian drama were acted week after week to an intelligent and approving audience. Now-a-days a man must rack his brains in order to cater for a frivolous and insatiable public, which has been taught to consider a house on fire, or a railway smash, the end and aim of dramatic composition. I speak from bitter experience. My grandfather was manager of the Eborsham circuit, and retired with a competency. My father inherited the competency,41 and lost it in the Eborsham circuit. I have been cradled in the profession, and have failed as manager, with credit to my head and heart, as my friends have been good enough to observe, some three or four times, and now hang on to dramatic art, "quite out of fashion, like a rusty nail in monumental armour." That's what I call the decline of the drama, Mr. Penwyn.'

James assented, and was not sorry that Mr. Dempson, having 'vented his woe,' went off to dress for the afterpiece.

'What a melancholy person!' said James.

'An excellent low comedian,' replied Mr. Elgood. 'You'll hear the people screaming at him in the "Spitalfields Weaver" by and by. His business with the tea and bread and butter is the finest thing I ever saw, not second to Wright's. Indeed,' added Mr. Elgood, as an after thought, 'I believe it is Wright's business.'

'Then it can hardly claim the merit of originality.'

'Genius, Mr. Penwyn, finds its material where it can.'


'Baron,' screamed a small boy, putting his head in at the door.

'My scene!' exclaimed Mr. Elgood, and vanished.

James seated himself on the narrow bench beside Justina.

'I have been in the boxes to see you act,' he said, in that gentle winning voice which had made him a favourite among women. To Justina it sounded fresh as a voice from another world. No one in her world spoke like that, in tones so deferential, with accents so pure.

'I am very sorry for it,' said Justina.

'Sorry! but why?'

'Because you must hate me. The audience always do hate me. I feel it in their looks—feel it freezing me directly I go on the stage. "Oh, there she is again!" they say to themselves. "Can't they manage to get through the piece without sending her on?"

'What a curious notion! I thought actresses were conceited people.'

'Yes, when they are favourites.'

'I don't know about the rest of the audience,43 Miss Elgood,' said James, almost tenderly, 'but I know I did not hate you,—my feelings leaned too much the other way.'

Justina blushed through those two dabs of rouge—compliments were so new to her, and a compliment from this elegant stranger was worth all the loud praises of the vulgar herd. She hardly envied Miss Villeroy—the leading lady—whose chokings and sobbings in Mrs. Haller had been applauded to the echo, while the poor countess in her draggle-tailed sky-blue satin had walked on and off unnoticed.

'So this is the way you enjoy the legitimate drama, Mr. Penwyn,' said a sonorous voice—the full rich baritone of Maurice Clissold—and, looking up, James and Justina beheld that gentleman watching them from the doorway.

'I left you asleep,' replied James, abashed by his friend's advent.

'Yes, sneaked off, and left me to grope my way to this abominable den as best I could. I beg your pardon, Miss Elgood, but it really is a den.'


'You can't hate it worse than I do,' said Justina, 'or so badly—I have to sit here every night.'

'Poor child! It's a strange life—and a hard one. Seen from the outside there seems a not unpleasant Bohemian flavour about it—but when one comes behind the scenes the Bohemian flavour appears to be mainly dirt. I've inhaled enough dust and escaped gas within the last ten minutes to last me comfortably for my lifetime. And you breathe this atmosphere for four or five hours every night! Poor child!'

James sighed. His benevolent heart longed to rescue the girl from such a life—a girl with pensive violet eyes, fringed by darkest lashes—soft brown hair, so luxuriant that it made a crown of plaits upon the well-shaped head,—altogether a girl whom benevolence would fain benefit.

'Come, Jim,' said Clissold, who had a knack of reading his friend's thoughts, 'you've seen enough of behind the scenes.'

'No, I haven't,' answered James, sturdily, as the countess ran off to act her part in the close of45 the play. He was wont to be plastic as wax in the hands of his guide, philosopher, and friend, but to-night there glowed a spark of rebellion in his soul. 'I am going to stop to see Mr. Elgood, and to ask him to bring his daughter to supper.'

'Bring his daughter! To visit two young men at a roadside inn?'

'Honi soit—,' said James. 'Can a girl be safer anywhere than with her father?'

'Look here, Penwyn,' said Clissold, earnestly, 'I've made it the business of my life for the last two years to keep you in the straight path. I won't have you kicking over the traces for any blue-eyed chit in the universe. Remember what I promised your poor mother, Jim.'

'That you'd act the part of an elder brother—supply the balance of good sense wanting to my shallow brains. That's all very well, Maurice. I always respected my poor mother's ideas even when they took the shape of prejudices. But a man must enjoy his life.'

'Yes, but he is bound to enjoy life with the least possible injury to other people.'


'Whom am I going to injure?' demanded Mr. Penwyn, with an impatient shrug, as he moved towards the wings.

'You are putting foolish ideas into that poor child's head.'

'What nonsense! Simply because I am civil to her. I mean to ask her to supper, whether you like it or not.'

'I hope her father will have the sense to refuse.'

'If you come to that, I'll invite the whole company!' cried the spoiled child of fortune.

The curtain came down at this moment, and Mr. Elgood returned to the green-room, unbuckling his sword-belt as he came along.

'I waited to remind you of your promise to sup with us to-night, Mr. Elgood,' said James.

'My dear sir, it is not an engagement to be forgotten. I shall be there.'

'Will half-past eleven be too early?'

'No; "The Stranger" has played quick to-night, and the afterpiece is short. I shall be there.'

'Miss Elgood will accompany you, I hope?'


'Thanks, no. The proprieties would be outraged by her appearance at a bachelor's table. The only lady present.'

'We could easily remedy that, if any other lady of the company would honour us.'

'Upon my word you are very kind; and I know the child would consider it a treat. If you put the question in such a friendly manner I feel sure that Mr. and Mrs. Dempson would be delighted to join us.'

'Pray bring them. Is Mrs. Dempson also dramatic?'

'You have seen her to-night in one of her greatest parts—Mrs. Haller.'

'I thought the lady was a Miss Villeroy.'

'Her professional name, merely. Joe Dempson and Miss Villeroy have been united in the sacred bonds of matrimony for some years.'

'I shall be charmed to make the lady's acquaintance. You know your way to the "Waterfowl?"

'It is familiar to me as the path of my infancy.'

'And you'll be sure to bring Miss Elgood?'

'Judy shall come without fail.'



'The pet name chosen by affection. She was christened Justina. Pardon me if I leave you hastily, I play in the next piece.'

Mr. Elgood hurried away. James Penwyn glanced at his friend with the glance of triumph.

'Out of leading-strings, you see, Maurice,' he said.

Maurice Clissold shrugged his shoulders and turned away with a sigh. James, more touched by silence than reproof, put his arm through his friend's with a gay laugh, and they went out of the green-room and out of the theatre together, arm-in-arm, like brothers who loved each other.


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