The Unbearable Bassington
CHAPTER XIIIComus found his way to his seat in the stalls of the Straw Exchange Theatre and turned to watch the stream of distinguished and distinguishable people who made their appearance as a matter of course at a First Night in the height of the Season. Pit and gallery were already packed with a throng, tense, expectant and alert, that waited for the rise of the curtain with the eager patience of a terrier watching a dilatory human prepare for outdoor exercises. Stalls and boxes filled slowly and hesitatingly with a crowd whose component units seemed for the most part to recognise the probability that they were quite as interesting as any play they were likely to see. Those who bore no particular face-value themselves derived a certain amount of social dignity from the near neighbourhood of obvious notabilities; if one could not obtain recognition oneself there was some vague pleasure in being able to recognise notoriety at intimately close quarters.
“Who is that woman with the auburn hair and a rather effective belligerent gleam in her eyes?” asked a man sitting just behind Comus; “she looks as if she might have created the world in six days and destroyed it on the seventh.”
“I forget her name,” said his neighbour; “she writes. She’s the author of that book, ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday,’ you know. It used to be the convention that women writers should be plain and dowdy; now we have gone to the other extreme and build them on extravagantly decorative lines.”
A buzz of recognition came from the front rows of the pit, together with a craning of necks on the part of those in less favoured seats. It heralded the arrival of Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world. Lady Caroline, who was already directing little conversational onslaughts from her box, gazed gently for a moment at the new arrival, and then turned to the silver-haired Archdeacon sitting beside her.
“They say the poor man is haunted by the fear that he will die during a general election, and that his obituary notices will be seriously curtailed by the space taken up by the election results. The curse of our party system, from his point of view, is that it takes up so much room in the press.”
The Archdeacon smiled indulgently. As a man he was so exquisitely worldly that he fully merited the name of the Heavenly Worldling bestowed on him by an admiring duchess, and withal his texture was shot with a pattern of such genuine saintliness that one felt that whoever else might hold the keys of Paradise he, at least, possessed a private latchkey to that abode.
“Is it not significant of the altered grouping of things,” he observed, “that the Church, as represented by me, sympathises with the message of Sherard Blaw, while neither the man nor his message find acceptance with unbelievers like you, Lady Caroline.”
Lady Caroline blinked her eyes. “My dear Archdeacon,” she said, “no one can be an unbeliever nowadays. The Christian Apologists have left one nothing to disbelieve.”
The Archdeacon rose with a delighted chuckle. “I must go and tell that to De la Poulett,” he said, indicating a clerical figure sitting in the third row of the stalls; “he spends his life explaining from his pulpit that the glory of Christianity consists in the fact that though it is not true it has been found necessary to invent it.”
The door of the box opened and Courtenay Youghal entered, bringing with him subtle suggestion of chaminade and an atmosphere of political tension. The Government had fallen out of the good graces of a section of its supporters, and those who were not in the know were busy predicting a serious crisis over a forthcoming division in the Committee stage of an important Bill. This was Saturday night, and unless some successful cajolery were effected between now and Monday afternoon, Ministers would be, seemingly, in danger of defeat.
“Ah, here is Youghal,” said the Archdeacon; “he will be able to tell us what is going to happen in the next forty-eight hours. I hear the Prime Minister says it is a matter of conscience, and they will stand or fall by it.”
His hopes and sympathies were notoriously on the Ministerial side.
Youghal greeted Lady Caroline and subsided gracefully into a chair well in the front of the box. A buzz of recognition rippled slowly across the house.
“For the Government to fall on a matter of conscience,” he said, “would be like a man cutting himself with a safety razor.”
Lady Caroline purred a gentle approval.
“I’m afraid it’s true, Archdeacon,” she said.
No one can effectively defend a Government when it’s been in office several years. The Archdeacon took refuge in light skirmishing.
“I believe Lady Caroline sees the makings of a great Socialist statesman in you, Youghal,” he observed.
“Great Socialist statesmen aren’t made, they’re stillborn,” replied Youghal.
“What is the play about to-night?” asked a pale young woman who had taken no part in the talk.
“I don’t know,” said Lady Caroline, “but I hope it’s dull. If there is any brilliant conversation in it I shall burst into tears.”
In the front row of the upper circle a woman with a restless starling-voice was discussing the work of a temporarily fashionable composer, chiefly in relation to her own emotions, which she seemed to think might prove generally interesting to those around her.
“Whenever I hear his music I feel that I want to go up into a mountain and pray. Can you understand that feeling?”
The girl to whom she was unburdening herself shook her head.
“You see, I’ve heard his music chiefly in Switzerland, and we were up among the mountains all the time, so it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
“In that case,” said the woman, who seemed to have emergency emotions to suit all geographical conditions, “I should have wanted to be in a great silent plain by the side of a rushing river.”
“What I think is so splendid about his music - ” commenced another starling-voice on the further side of the girl. Like sheep that feed greedily before the coming of a storm the starling-voices seemed impelled to extra effort by the knowledge of four imminent intervals of acting during which they would be hushed into constrained silence.
In the back row of the dress circle a late-comer, after a cursory glance at the programme, had settled down into a comfortable narrative, which was evidently the resumed thread of an unfinished taxi-drive monologue.
“We all said ‘it can’t be Captain Parminter, because he’s always been sweet on Joan,’ and then Emily said - ”
The curtain went up, and Emily’s contribution to the discussion had to be held over till the entr’acte.
The play promised to be a success. The author, avoiding the pitfall of brilliancy, had aimed at being interesting and as far as possible, bearing in mind that his play was a comedy, he had striven to be amusing. Above all he had remembered that in the laws of stage proportions it is permissible and generally desirable that the part should be greater than the whole; hence he had been careful to give the leading lady such a clear and commanding lead over the other characters of the play that it was impossible for any of them ever to get on level terms with her. The action of the piece was now and then delayed thereby, but the duration of its run would be materially prolonged.
The curtain came down on the first act amid an encouraging instalment of applause, and the audience turned its back on the stage and began to take a renewed interest in itself. The authoress of “The Woman who wished it was Wednesday” had swept like a convalescent whirlwind, subdued but potentially tempestuous, into Lady Caroline’s box.
“I’ve just trodden with all my weight on the foot of an eminent publisher as I was leaving my seat,” she cried, with a peal of delighted laughter. “He was such a dear about it; I said I hoped I hadn’t hurt him, and he said, ‘I suppose you think, who drives hard bargains should himself be hard.’ Wasn’t it pet-lamb of him?”
“I’ve never trodden on a pet lamb,” said Lady Caroline, “so I’ve no idea what its behaviour would be under the circumstances.”
“Tell me,” said the authoress, coming to the front of the box, the better to survey the house, and perhaps also with a charitable desire to make things easy for those who might pardonably wish to survey her, “tell me, please, where is the girl sitting whom Courtenay Youghal is engaged to?”
Elaine was pointed out to her, sitting in the fourth row of the stalls, on the opposite side of the house to where Comus had his seat. Once during the interval she had turned to give him a friendly nod of recognition as he stood in one of the side gangways, but he was absorbed at the moment in looking at himself in the glass panel. The grave brown eyes and the mocking green-grey ones had looked their last into each other’s depths.
For Comus this first-night performance, with its brilliant gathering of spectators, its groups and coteries of lively talkers, even its counterfoil of dull chatterers, its pervading atmosphere of stage and social movement, and its intruding undercurrent of political flutter, all this composed a tragedy in which he was the chief character. It was the life he knew and loved and basked in, and it was the life he was leaving. It would go on reproducing itself again and again, with its stage interest and social interest and intruding outside interests, with the same lively chattering crowd, the people who had done things being pointed out by people who recognised them to people who didn’t - it would all go on with unflagging animation and sparkle and enjoyment, and for him it would have stopped utterly. He would be in some unheard-of sun-blistered wilderness, where natives and pariah dogs and raucous-throated crows fringed round mockingly on one’s loneliness, where one rode for sweltering miles for the chance of meeting a collector or police officer, with whom most likely on closer acquaintance one had hardly two ideas in common, where female society was represented at long intervals by some climate-withered woman missionary or official’s wife, where food and sickness and veterinary lore became at last the three outstanding subjects on which the mind settled or rather sank. That was the life he foresaw and dreaded, and that was the life he was going to. For a boy who went out to it from the dulness of some country rectory, from a neighbourhood where a flower show and a cricket match formed the social landmarks of the year, the feeling of exile might not be very crushing, might indeed be lost in the sense of change and adventure. But Comus had lived too thoroughly in the centre of things to regard life in a backwater as anything else than stagnation, and stagnation while one is young he justly regarded as an offence against nature and reason, in keeping with the perverted mockery that sends decrepit invalids touring painfully about the world and shuts panthers up in narrow cages. He was being put aside, as a wine is put aside, but to deteriorate instead of gaining in the process, to lose the best time of his youth and health and good looks in a world where youth and health and good looks count for much and where time never returns lost possessions. And thus, as the curtain swept down on the close of each act, Comus felt a sense of depression and deprivation sweep down on himself; bitterly he watched his last evening of social gaiety slipping away to its end. In less than an hour it would be over; in a few months’ time it would be an unreal memory.
In the third interval, as he gazed round at the chattering house, someone touched him on the arm. It was Lady Veula Croot.
“I suppose in a week’s time you’ll be on the high seas,” she said. “I’m coming to your farewell dinner, you know; your mother has just asked me. I’m not going to talk the usual rot to you about how much you will like it and so on. I sometimes think that one of the advantages of Hell will be that no one will have the impertinence to point out to you that you’re really better off than you would be anywhere else. What do you think of the play? Of course one can foresee the end; she will come to her husband with the announcement that their longed-for child is going to be born, and that will smooth over everything. So conveniently effective, to wind up a comedy with the commencement of someone else’s tragedy. And every one will go away saying ‘I’m glad it had a happy ending.’”
Lady Veula moved back to her seat, with her pleasant smile on her lips and the look of infinite weariness in her eyes.
The interval, the last interval, was drawing to a close and the house began to turn with fidgetty attention towards the stage for the unfolding of the final phase of the play. Francesca sat in Serena Golackly’s box listening to Colonel Springfield’s story of what happened to a pigeon-cote in his compound at Poona. Everyone who knew the Colonel had to listen to that story a good many times, but Lady Caroline had mitigated the boredom of the infliction, and in fact invested it with a certain sporting interest, by offering a prize to the person who heard it oftenest in the course of the Season, the competitors being under an honourable understanding not to lead up to the subject. Ada Spelvexit and a boy in the Foreign Office were at present at the top of the list with five recitals each to their score, but the former was suspected of doubtful adherence to the rules and spirit of the competition.
“And there, dear lady,” concluded the Colonel, “were the eleven dead pigeons. What had become of the bandicoot no one ever knew.”
Francesca thanked him for his story, and complacently inscribed the figure 4 on the margin of her theatre programme. Almost at the same moment she heard George St. Michael’s voice pattering out a breathless piece of intelligence for the edification of Serena Golackly and anyone else who might care to listen. Francesca galvanised into sudden attention.
“Emmeline Chetrof to a fellow in the Indian Forest Department. He’s got nothing but his pay and they can’t be married for four or five years; an absurdly long engagement, don’t you think so? All very well to wait seven years for a wife in patriarchal times, when you probably had others to go on with, and you lived long enough to celebrate your own tercentenary, but under modern conditions it seems a foolish arrangement.”
St. Michael spoke almost with a sense of grievance. A marriage project that tied up all the small pleasant nuptial gossip-items about bridesmaids and honeymoon and recalcitrant aunts and so forth, for an indefinite number of years seemed scarcely decent in his eyes, and there was little satisfaction or importance to be derived from early and special knowledge of an event which loomed as far distant as a Presidential Election or a change of Viceroy. But to Francesca, who had listened with startled apprehension at the mention of Emmeline Chetrof’s name, the news came in a flood of relief and thankfulness. Short of entering a nunnery and taking celibate vows, Emmeline could hardly have behaved more conveniently than in tying herself up to a lover whose circumstances made it necessary to relegate marriage to the distant future. For four or five years Francesca was assured of undisturbed possession of the house in Blue Street, and after that period who knew what might happen? The engagement might stretch on indefinitely, it might even come to nothing under the weight of its accumulated years, as sometimes happened with these protracted affairs. Emmeline might lose her fancy for her absentee lover, and might never replace him with another. A golden possibility of perpetual tenancy of her present home began to float once more through Francesca’s mind. As long as Emmeline had been unbespoken in the marriage market there had always been the haunting likelihood of seeing the dreaded announcement, “a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place,” in connection with her name. And now a marriage had been arranged and would not shortly take place, might indeed never take place. St. Michael’s information was likely to be correct in this instance; he would never have invented a piece of matrimonial intelligence which gave such little scope for supplementary detail of the kind he loved to supply. As Francesca turned to watch the fourth act of the play, her mind was singing a paean of thankfulness and exultation. It was as though some artificer sent by the Gods had reinforced with a substantial cord the horsehair thread that held up the sword of Damocles over her head. Her love for her home, for her treasured household possessions, and her pleasant social life was able to expand once more in present security, and feed on future hope. She was still young enough to count four or five years as a long time, and to-night she was optimistic enough to prophesy smooth things of the future that lay beyond that span. Of the fourth act, with its carefully held back but obviously imminent reconciliation between the leading characters, she took in but little, except that she vaguely understood it to have a happy ending. As the lights went up she looked round on the dispersing audience with a feeling of friendliness uppermost in her mind; even the sight of Elaine de Frey and Courtenay Youghal leaving the theatre together did not inspire her with a tenth part of the annoyance that their entrance had caused her. Serena’s invitation to go on to the Savoy for supper fitted in exactly with her mood of exhilaration. It would be a fit and appropriate wind-up to an auspicious evening. The cold chicken and modest brand of Chablis waiting for her at home should give way to a banquet of more festive nature.
In the crush of the vestibule, friends and enemies, personal and political, were jostled and locked together in the general effort to rejoin temporarily estranged garments and secure the attendance of elusive vehicles. Lady Caroline found herself at close quarters with the estimable Henry Greech, and experienced some of the joy which comes to the homeward wending sportsman when a chance shot presents itself on which he may expend his remaining cartridges.
“So the Government is going to climb down, after all,” she said, with a provocative assumption of private information on the subject.
“I assure you the Government will do nothing of the kind,” replied the Member of Parliament with befitting dignity; “the Prime Minister told me last night that under no circumstances - ”
“My dear Mr. Greech,” said Lady Caroline, “we all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other wedded couples they sometimes live apart.”
For her, at any rate, the comedy had had a happy ending.
Comus made his way slowly and lingeringly from the stalls, so slowly that the lights were already being turned down and great shroud-like dust-cloths were being swaythed over the ornamental gilt-work. The laughing, chattering, yawning throng had filtered out of the vestibule, and was melting away in final groups from the steps of the theatre. An impatient attendant gave him his coat and locked up the cloak room. Comus stepped out under the portico; he looked at the posters announcing the play, and in anticipation he could see other posters announcing its 200th performance. Two hundred performances; by that time the Straw Exchange Theatre would be to him something so remote and unreal that it would hardly seem to exist or to have ever existed except in his fancy. And to the laughing chattering throng that would pass in under that portico to the 200th performance, he would be, to those that had known him, something equally remote and non-existent. “The good-looking Bassington boy? Oh, dead, or rubber-growing or sheep-farming or something of that sort.”