Dead Man's Rock by Arthur Quiller-Couch

BOOK II
THE FINDING OF THE GREAT RUBY

CHAPTER V
TELLS HOW THE CURTAIN ROSE UPON "FRANCESCA: A TRAGEDY"


Again my story may hurry, for on the enchanted weeks that followed it would weary all but lovers to dwell, and lovers for the most part find their own matters sufficient food for pondering. Tom was busy with the rehearsals at the Coliseum, and I, being left alone, had little taste for the Materia Medica. On Sundays only did I see Claire; for this Mrs. Luttrell had stipulated, and my love, too, most mysteriously professed herself busy during the week. As for me, it was clear that before marriage could be talked of I must at least have gained my diplomas, so that the more work I did during the week the better. The result of this was a goodly sowing of resolutions and very little harvest. In the evenings, Tom and I would sit together—he tirelessly polishing and pruning the tragedy, and I for the most part smoking and giving advice which I am bound to say in duty to the author ("Francesca" having gained some considerable fame since those days) was invariably rejected.

Tom had been growing silent and moody of late—a change for which I could find no cause. He would answer my questions at random, pause in his work to gaze long and intently on the ceiling, and altogether behave in ways unaccountable and strange. The play had been written at white-hot speed: the corrections proceeded at a snail's pace. The author had also fallen into a habit of bolting his meals in silence, and, when rebuked, of slowly bringing his eyes to bear upon me as a person whose presence was until the moment unsuspected. All this I saw in mild wonder, but I reflected on certain moods of my own of late, and held my peace.

The explanation came without my seeking. We were seated together one evening, he over his everlasting corrections, and I in some especially herbaceous nook of the Materia Medica, when Tom looked up and said—

"Jasper, I want your opinion on a passage. Listen to this."

Sick of my flowery solitude, I gave him my attention while he read:—

"She is no violet to veil and hide
Before the lusty sun, but as the flower,
His best-named bride, that leaneth to the light
And images his look of lordly love—
Yet how I wrong her. She is more a queen
Than he a king; and whoso looks must kneel
And worship, conscious of a Sovranty
Undreamt in nature, save it be the Heaven
That minist'ring to all is queen of all,
And wears the proud sun's self but as a gem
To grace her girdle, one among the stars.
Heaven is Francesca, and Francesca Heaven.
Without her, Heaven is dispossessed of Heaven,
And Earth, discrowned and disinherited,
Shall beg in black eclipse, until her eyes—"

"Stay," I interrupted, "unless I am mistaken her eyes are like the Pleiads, a simile to which I have more than once objected."

"If you would only listen you would find those lines cut out," said Tom, pettishly.

"In that case I apologise: nevertheless, if that is your idea of a Francesca, I confess she seems to me a trifle—shall we say?— massive."

"Your Claire, I suppose, is stumpy?"

"My Claire," I replied with dignity, "is neither stumpy nor stupendous."

"In fact, just the right height."

"Well, yes, just the right height."

Tom paid no attention, but went on in full career—

"I hate your Griseldas, your Jessamys, your Mary Anns; give me Semiramis, Dido, Joan of—"

"My dear Tom, not all at once, I hope."

"Bah! you are so taken up with your own choice, that you must needs scoff at anyone who happens to differ. I tell you, woman should be imperial, majestic; should walk as a queen and talk as a goddess. You scoff because you have never seen such; you shut your eyes and go about saying, 'There is no such woman.' By heaven, Jasper, if you could only see—"

At this point Tom suddenly pulled up and blushed like any child.

"Go on—whom shall I see?"

Tom's blush was beautiful to look upon.

"The Lambert, for instance; I meant—"

"Who is the Lambert?"

"Do you mean to say you have never heard of Clarissa Lambert, the most glorious actress in London?"

"Never. Is she acting at the Coliseum?"

"Of course she is. She takes Francesca. Oh, Jasper, you should see her, she is divine!"

Here another blush succeeded.

"So," I said after a pause, "you have taken upon yourself to fall in love with this Clarissa Lambert."

Tom looked unutterably sheepish.

"Is the passion returned?"

"Jasper, don't talk like that and don't be a fool. Of course I have never breathed a word to her. Why, she hardly knows me, has hardly spoken to me beyond a few simple sentences. How should I, a miserable author without even a name, speak to her? Jasper, do you like the name Clarissa?"

"Not half so well as Claire."

"Nonsense; Claire is well enough as names go, but nothing to Clarissa. Mark how the ending gives it grace and quaintness; what a grand eighteenth-century ring it has! It is superb—so sweet, and at the same time so stately."

"And replaces Francesca so well in scansion."

Tom's face was confession.

"You should see her, Jasper—her eyes. What colour are Claire's?"

"Deep grey."

"Clarissa's are hazel brown: I prefer brown; in fact I always thought a woman should have brown eyes: we won't quarrel about inches, but you will give way in the matter of eyes, will you not?"

"Not an inch."

"It really is wonderful," said Tom, "how the mere fact of being in love is apt to corrupt a man's taste. Now in the matter of voice—I dare wager that your Claire speaks in soft and gentle numbers."

"As an Aeolian harp," said I, and I spoke truth.

"Of course, unrelieved tenderness and not a high note in the gamut. But you should hear Clarissa; I only ask you to hear her once, and let those glorious accents play upon your crass heart for a moment or two. O Jasper, Jasper, it shakes the very soul!"

Tom was evidently in a very advanced stage of the sickness; I could not find it in my heart to return his flouts of a month before, so I said—

"Very well, my dear Tom, I shall look upon your divinity in November. I do not promise you she will have the effect that you look forward to, but I am glad your Francesca will be worthily played; and, Tom, I am glad you are in love; I think it improves you."

"It is hopeless—absolutely hopeless; she is cold as ice."

"What, with that voice and those eyes? Nonsense, man."

"She is cold as ice," groaned poor Tom; "everyone says so."

"Of course everyone says so; you ought to be glad of that, for this is the one point on which what everyone says must from the nature of things be false. Why, man, if she beamed on the whole world, then I might believe you."

From which it will be gathered that I had learned something from being in love.

So sad did I consider Tom's case, that I spoke to Claire about it when I saw her next.

"Claire," I said, "you have often heard me speak of Tom."

"Really, Jasper, you seldom speak of anybody else. In fact I am growing quite jealous of this friend."

After the diversion caused by this speech, I resumed—

"But really Tom is the best of fellows, and if I talk much of him it is because he is my only friend. You must see him, Claire, and you will be sure to like him. He is so clever!"

"What is the name of this genius—I mean the other name?"

"Why, Loveday, of course—Thomas Loveday. Do you mean to say I have never told you?"

"Never," said Claire, meditatively. "Loveday—Thomas Loveday—is it a common name?"

"No, I should think not very common. Don't you like it?"

"It—begins well."

Here followed another diversion.

"But what I was going to say about Tom," I continued, "is this—he has fallen in love; in fact, I have never seen a man so deeply in love."

"Oh!"

"Anyone else," I corrected, "for of course I was quite as bad; you understand that."

"We were talking of Thomas Loveday."

"Oh, yes, of Tom. Well, Tom, you know—or perhaps you do not. At any rate, Tom has written a tragedy."

"All about love?"

"Well, not quite all; though there is a good deal in it, considering it was written when the author had no idea of what the passion was like. But that is not the point. This tragedy is coming out at the Coliseum in November. Are you not well, Claire?"

"Yes, yes; go on. What has all this to do with Tom's love?"

"I am coming to that. Tom, of course, has been attending the rehearsals lately. He will not let me come until the piece is ready, for he is wonderfully nervous. I am to come and see it on the first night. Well, as I was saying, Tom has been going to rehearsals, and has fallen in love with—guess with whom."

Claire was certainly getting very white.

"Are you sure you are well, Claire?" I asked, anxiously.

"Oh, yes; quite sure. But tell me with whom—how should I guess?"

"Why, with the leading actress; one Clarissa Lambert, is it not?"

"Clarissa—Lambert!"

"Why, Claire, what is the matter? Are you faint?" For my love had turned deathly pale, and seemed as though she would faint indeed.

We were in the old spot so often revisited, though the leaves were yellowing fast, and the blackbird's note had long ceased utterly. I placed my arm around her for support, but my darling unlocked it after a moment, struggled with her pallor, and said—

"No, no; I am better. It was a little faintness, but is passing off. Go on, and tell me about Mr. Loveday."

"I am afraid I bored you. But that is all. Do you know this Clarissa Lambert? Have you seen her?"

"Yes—I have seen her."

"I suppose she is very famous; at least, Tom says so. He also says she is divine; but I expect, from his description, that she is of the usual stamp of Tragedy Queen, tall and loud, with a big voice."

"Did he tell you that?"

"No, of course Tom raves about her. But there is no accounting for what a lover will say." This statement was made with all the sublime assurance of an accepted man. "But you have seen her," I went on, "and can tell me how far his description is true. I suppose she is much the same as other actresses, is she not?"

"Jasper," said Claire, very gently, after a pause, "do you ever go to a theatre?"

"Very seldom; in fact, about twice only since I have been in London."

"I suppose you were taught as a boy to hate such things?"

"Well," I laughed, "I do not expect Uncle Loveday would have approved of Tom's choice, if that is what you mean. But that does not matter, I fear, as Tom swears that his case is hopeless. He worships from afar, and says that she is as cold as ice. In fact, he has never told his love, but lets concealment like a—"

"That is not what I meant. Do you—do you think all actors and actresses wicked?"

"Of course not. Why should I?"

"You are going to see—"

"'Francesca'? Oh, yes, on the opening night."

"Then possibly we shall meet. Will you look out for me?"

"Let me take you, Claire. Oh, I am glad indeed! You will see Tom there, and, I hope, be able to congratulate him on his triumph. So let me take you."

She shook her head.

"No, no."

"Why?"

"Because that is impossible—really. I shall see you there, and you will see me. Is not that enough?"

"If you say so, it must be," I answered sadly. "But—"

"'But me no buts,'" she quoted. "See, it is getting late; we must be going."

A most strange silence fell upon us on the way back to Streatley. Claire's face had not yet wholly regained its colour, and she seemed disinclined to talk. So I had to solace myself by drinking in long draughts of her loveliness, and by whispering to my soul how poorly Tom's Queen of Tragedy would show beside my sweetheart.

O fool and blind!

Presently my love asked musingly—

"Jasper, do you think that you could cease to love me?"

"Claire, how can you ask it?"

"You are quite sure? You remember what mother said?"

"Claire, love is strong as death. How does the text run? 'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.' Claire, you must believe that!"

"'Strong as death,'" she murmured. "Yes, I believe it. What a lovely text that is!"

The boat touched shore at Streatley, and we stepped out.

"Jasper," she said again at parting that night, "you have no doubt, no grain of doubt, about my question, and the answer? 'Strong as death,' you are sure?"

For answer I strained her to my heart.

O fool and blind! O fool and blind!

The night that was big with Tom's fate had come. The Coliseum was crowded as we entered. In those days the theatre had no stalls, so we sat in the front row of the dress circle, Tom having in his modesty refused a box. He was behind the scenes until some five minutes before the play began, so that before he joined me I had ample time to study the house and look about for some sign of Claire.

Certainly, the sedulous manner in which the new tragedy had been advertised was not without result. To me, unused as I was to theatre-going, the host of people, the hot air, the glare of the gas-lights were intoxicating. In a flutter of anxiety for Tom's success, of sweet perturbation at the prospect of meeting Claire, at first I could grasp but a confused image of the scene. By degrees, however, I began to look about me, and then to scan the audience narrowly for sight of my love.

Surely I should note her at once among thousands. Yet my first glance was fruitless. I looked again, examined the house slowly face by face, and again was baffled. I could see all but a small portion of the pit, the upper boxes and gallery. Pit and gallery were out of the question. She might, though it was hardly likely, be in the tier just above, and I determined to satisfy myself after the end of Act I. Meantime I scanned the boxes. There were twelve on either side of the house, and all were full. By degrees I satisfied myself that strangers occupied all of them, except the box nearest the stage on the right of the tier where I was sitting. The occupants of this were out of sight. Only a large yellow and black fan was swaying slowly backwards and forwards to tell me that somebody sat there.

Somehow, the slow, ceaseless motion of this pricked my curiosity. Its pace, as it waved to and fro, was unaltered; the hand that moved it seemingly tireless; but even the hand was hidden. Not a finger could I gain a glimpse of. By some silly freak of fancy I was positively burning with eagerness to see the fan's owner, when Tom returned and took his seat beside me.

"It begins in five minutes; everything is ready," said he, and his voice had a nervous tremor which he sought in vain to hide.

"Courage!" I said; "at least the numbers here should flatter you."

"They frighten me! What shall I do if it fails?"

The overture was drawing to its close. Tom looked anxiously around the house.

"Yes," he said, "it is crowded, indeed. By the way, was not Claire to have been here? Point her out to me."

"She was; but I cannot see her anywhere. Perhaps she is late."

"If so, I cannot see where she is to find a place. Hush! they are ending."

As he spoke, the last strains of the orchestra died slowly and mournfully away, and the curtain rose upon "Francesca: a Tragedy."

This play has since gained such a name, not only from its own merits (which are considerable), but in consequence also of certain circumstances which this story will relate, that it would be not only tedious but unnecessary to follow its action in detail. For the benefit, however, of those who did not see it at the Coliseum, I here subjoin a short sketch of the plot, which the better-informed reader may omit.

Francesca is the daughter of Sebastian, at one time Duke of Bologna, but deposed and driven from his palace by the intrigues of his younger brother Charles. At the time when the action begins, Sebastian is chief of a band of brigands, the remains of his faithful adherents, whom he has taken with him to the fastnesses of the Apennines. Charles, who has already usurped the duchy for some sixteen years, is travelling with his son Valentine, a youth of twenty, near the haunt of his injured brother. Separated from their escort, they are wandering up a pass, when Valentine stops to admire the view, promising his father to join him at the summit. While thus occupied, he is startled by the entrance of Francesca, and, struck with her beauty, accosts her. She, sympathising for so noble a youth, warns him of the banditti, and he hastens on only to find his father lying at the foot of a precipitous rock, dead. He supposes him to have fallen, has the body conveyed back to Bologna, and having by this time fallen deeply in love with Francesca, prevails on her to leave her father and come with him. She consents, and flies with him, but after some time finds that he is deserting her for Julia, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara. Slighted and driven to desperation, she makes her way back to her father, is forgiven, and learns that Charles' death was due to no accident, but to her father's hand. No sooner is this discovery made than Valentine and Julia are brought in by the banditti, who have surprised and captured them, but do not know their rank. The deposed duke, Sebastian, does not recognise Valentine, and consigns him, with his wife, to a cave, under guard of the brigands. It is settled by Sebastian that on the morrow Valentine is to go and fetch a ransom, leaving his wife behind. Francesca, having plied the guards with drink, enters by night into the cave where they lie captive, is recognised by them, and offers to change dresses with Julia in order that husband and wife may escape. A fine scene follows of insistence and self-reproach, but ultimately Francesca prevails. Valentine and Julia pass out in the grey dawn, and Francesca, left alone, stabs herself. The play concludes as her father enters the cave and discovers his daughter's corpse.

The first scene (which is placed at the court of Bologna) passed without disaster, and the curtain fell for a moment before it rose upon the mountain pass. Hitherto the audience had been chilly. They did not hiss, but neither did they applaud; and I could feel, without being able to give any definite reason for the impression, that so far the play had failed. Tom saw it too. I did not dare to look in his face, but could tell his agony by his short and laboured breathing. Luckily his torture did not last long, for the curtain quickly rose for Scene 2.

The scene was beautifully painted and awakened a momentary enthusiasm in the audience. It died away, however, as Sebastian and Valentine entered. The dialogue between them was short, and Valentine was very soon left alone to a rather dull soliloquy (since shortened) which began to weary the audience most unmistakably. I caught the sound of a faint hiss, saw one or two people yawning; and then—

Stealing, rising, swelling, gathering as it thrilled the ear all graces and delights of perfect sound; sweeping the awed heart with touch that set the strings quivering to an ecstasy that was almost pain; breathing through them in passionate whispering; hovering, swaying, soaring upward to the very roof, then shivering down again in celestial shower of silver—there came a voice that trod all conceptions, all comparisons, all dreams to scorn; a voice beyond hope, beyond belief; a voice that in its unimaginable beauty seemed to compel the very heaven to listen.

And yet—surely I knew—surely it could not be—

I must be dreaming—mad! The bare notion was incredible—and even as my heart spoke the words, the theatre grew dim and shadowy; the vast sea of faces heaved, melted, swam in confusion; all sound came dull and hoarse upon my ear; while there—there—

There, in the blaze of light, radiant, lovely, a glorified and triumphant queen, stepped forward before the eyes of that vast multitude—my love, my Claire!



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