Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Chapter XIX

An Hour in Elfland — A Clamour Half Heard

At last the curtain was ready to go up. All the details of the make-up had been completed, and the company settled down as the leader of the small, hired orchestra tapped significantly upon his music rack with his baton and began the soft curtain-raising strain. Hurstwood ceased talking, and went with Drouet and his friend Sagar Morrison around to the box.

“Now, we’ll see how the little girl does,” he said to Drouet, in a tone which no one else could hear.

On the stage, six of the characters had already appeared in the opening parlour scene. Drouet and Hurstwood saw at a glance that Carrie was not among them, and went on talking in a whisper. Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Hoagland, and the actor who had taken Bamberger’s part were representing the principal roles in this scene. The professional, whose name was Patton, had little to recommend him outside of his assurance, but this at the present moment was most palpably needed. Mrs. Morgan, as Pearl, was stiff with fright. Mrs. Hoagland was husky in the throat. The whole company was so weak-kneed that the lines were merely spoken, and nothing more. It took all the hope and uncritical good-nature of the audience to keep from manifesting pity by that unrest which is the agony of failure.

Hurstwood was perfectly indifferent. He took it for granted that it would be worthless. All he cared for was to have it endurable enough to allow for pretension and congratulation afterward.

After the first rush of fright, however, the players got over the danger of collapse. They rambled weakly forward, losing nearly all the expression which was intended, and making the thing dull in the extreme, when Carrie came in.

One glance at her, and both Hurstwood and Drouet saw plainly that she also was weak-kneed. She came faintly across the stage, saying:

“And you, sir; we have been looking for you since eight o’clock,” but with so little colour and in such a feeble voice that it was positively painful.

“She’s frightened,” whispered Drouet to Hurstwood.

The manager made no answer.

She had a line presently which was supposed to be funny.

“Well, that’s as much as to say that I’m a sort of life pill.”

It came out so flat, however, that it was a deathly thing. Drouet fidgeted. Hurstwood moved his toe the least bit.

There was another place in which Laura was to rise and, with a sense of impending disaster, say, sadly:

“I wish you hadn’t said that, Pearl. You know the old proverb, ‘Call a maid by a married name.’”

The lack of feeling in the thing was ridiculous. Carrie did not get it at all. She seemed to be talking in her sleep. It looked as if she were certain to be a wretched failure. She was more hopeless than Mrs. Morgan, who had recovered somewhat, and was now saying her lines clearly at least. Drouet looked away from the stage at the audience. The latter held out silently, hoping for a general change, of course. Hurstwood fixed his eye on Carrie, as if to hypnotise her into doing better. He was pouring determination of his own in her direction. He felt sorry for her.

In a few more minutes it fell to her to read the letter sent in by the strange villain. The audience had been slightly diverted by a conversation between the professional actor and a character called Snorky, impersonated by a short little American, who really developed some humour as a half-crazed, one-armed soldier, turned messenger for a living. He bawled his lines out with such defiance that, while they really did not partake of the humour intended, they were funny. Now he was off, however, and it was back to pathos, with Carrie as the chief figure. She did not recover. She wandered through the whole scene between herself and the intruding villain, straining the patience of the audience, and finally exiting, much to their relief.

“She’s too nervous,” said Drouet, feeling in the mildness of the remark that he was lying for once.

“Better go back and say a word to her.”

Drouet was glad to do anything for relief. He fairly hustled around to the side entrance, and was let in by the friendly door-keeper. Carrie was standing in the wings, weakly waiting her next cue, all the snap and nerve gone out of her.

“Say, Cad,” he said, looking at her, “you mustn’t be nervous. Wake up. Those guys out there don’t amount to anything. What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know,” said Carrie. “I just don’t seem to be able to do it.”

She was grateful for the drummer’s presence, though. She had found the company so nervous that her own strength had gone.

“Come on,” said Drouet. “Brace up. What are you afraid of? Go on out there now, and do the trick. What do you care?”

Carrie revived a little under the drummer’s electrical, nervous condition.

“Did I do so very bad?”

“Not a bit. All you need is a little more ginger. Do it as you showed me. Get that toss of your head you had the other night.”

Carrie remembered her triumph in the room. She tried to think she could to it.

‘What’s next?” he said, looking at her part, which she had been studying.

“Why, the scene between Ray and me when I refuse him.”

“Well, now you do that lively,” said the drummer. “Put in snap, that’s the thing. Act as if you didn’t care.”

“Your turn next, Miss Madenda,” said the prompter.

“Oh, dear,” said Carrie.

“Well, you’re a chump for being afraid,” said Drouet. “Come on now, brace up. I’ll watch you from right here.”

“Will you?” said Carrie.

“Yes, now go on. Don’t be afraid.”

The prompter signalled her.

She started out, weak as ever, but suddenly her nerve partially returned. She thought of Drouet looking.

“Ray,” she said, gently, using a tone of voice much more calm than when she had last appeared. It was the scene which had pleased the director at the rehearsal.

“She’s easier,” thought Hurstwood to himself.

She did not do the part as she had at rehearsal, but she was better. The audience was at least not irritated. The improvement of the work of the entire company took away direct observation from her. They were making very fair progress, and now it looked as if the play would be passable, in the less trying parts at least.

Carrie came off warm and nervous.

“Well,” she said, looking at him, “was it any better?”

“Well, I should say so. That’s the way. Put life into it. You did that about a thousand per cent. better than you did the other scene. Now go on and fire up. You can do it. Knock ’em.”

“Was it really better?”

“Better, I should say so. What comes next?”

“That ballroom scene.”

“Well, you can do that all right,” he said.

“I don’t know,” answered Carrie.

“Why, woman,” he exclaimed, “you did it for me! Now you go out there and do it. It’ll be fun for you. Just do as you did in the room. If you’ll reel it off that way, I’ll bet you make a hit. Now, what’ll you bet? You do it.”

The drummer usually allowed his ardent good-nature to get the better of his speech. He really did think that Carrie had acted this particular scene very well, and he wanted her to repeat it in public. His enthusiasm was due to the mere spirit of the occasion.

When the time came, he buoyed Carrie up most effectually. He began to make her feel as if she had done very well. The old melancholy of desire began to come back as he talked at her, and by the time the situation rolled around she was running high in feeling.

“I think I can do this.”

“Sure you can. Now you go ahead and see.”

On the stage, Mrs. Van Dam was making her cruel insinuation against Laura.

Carrie listened, and caught the infection of something — she did not know what. Her nostrils sniffed thinly.

“It means,” the professional actor began, speaking as Ray, “that society is a terrible avenger of insult. Have you ever heard of the Siberian wolves? When one of the pack falls through weakness, the others devour him. It is not an elegant comparison, but there is something wolfish in society. Laura has mocked it with a pretence, and society, which is made up of pretence, will bitterly resent the mockery.”

At the sound of her stage name Carrie started. She began to feel the bitterness of the situation. The feelings of the outcast descended upon her. She hung at the wing’s edge, wrapt in her own mounting thoughts. She hardly heard anything more, save her own rumbling blood.

“Come, girls,” said Mrs. Van Dam, solemnly, “let us look after our things. They are no longer safe when such an accomplished thief enters.”

“Cue,” said the prompter, close to her side, but she did not hear. Already she was moving forward with a steady grace, born of inspiration. She dawned upon the audience, handsome and proud, shifting, with the necessity of the situation, to a cold, white, helpless object, as the social pack moved away from her scornfully.

Hurstwood blinked his eyes and caught the infection. The radiating waves of feeling and sincerity were already breaking against the farthest walls of the chamber. The magic of passion, which will yet dissolve the world, was here at work.

There was a drawing, too, of attention, a riveting of feeling, heretofore wandering.

“Ray! Ray! Why do you not come back to her?” was the cry of Pearl.

Every eye was fixed on Carrie, still proud and scornful. They moved as she moved. Their eyes were with her eyes.

Mrs. Morgan, as Pearl, approached her.

“Let us go home,” she said.

“No,” answered Carrie, her voice assuming for the first time a penetrating quality which it had never known. “Stay with him!”

She pointed an almost accusing hand toward her lover. Then, with a pathos which struck home because of its utter simplicity, “He shall not suffer long.”

Hurstwood realised that he was seeing something extraordinarily good. It was heightened for him by the applause of the audience as the curtain descended and the fact that it was Carrie. He thought now that she was beautiful. She had done something which was above his sphere. He felt a keen delight in realising that she was his.

“Fine,” he said, and then, seized by a sudden impulse, arose and went about to the stage door.

When he came in upon Carrie she was still with Drouet. His feelings for her were most exuberant. He was almost swept away by the strength and feeling she exhibited. His desire was to pour forth his praise with the unbounded feelings of a lover, but here was Drouet, whose affection was also rapidly reviving. The latter was more fascinated, if anything, than Hurstwood. At least, in the nature of things, it took a more ruddy form.

“Well, well,” said Drouet, “you did out of sight. That was simply great. I knew you could do it. Oh, but you’re a little daisy!”

Carrie’s eyes flamed with the light of achievement.

“Did I do all right?”

“Did you? Well, I guess. Didn’t you hear the applause?”

There was some faint sound of clapping yet.

“I thought I got it something like — I felt it.”

Just then Hurstwood came in. Instinctively he felt the change in Drouet. He saw that the drummer was near to Carrie, and jealousy leaped alight in his bosom. In a flash of thought, he reproached himself for having sent him back. Also, he hated him as an intruder. He could scarcely pull himself down to the level where he would have to congratulate Carrie as a friend. Nevertheless, the man mastered himself, and it was a triumph. He almost jerked the old subtle light to his eyes.

“I thought,” he said, looking at Carrie, “I would come around and tell you how well you did, Mrs. Drouet. It was delightful.”

Carrie took the cue, and replied:

“Oh, thank you.”

“I was just telling her,” put in Drouet, now delighted with his possession, “that I thought she did fine.”

“Indeed you did,” said Hurstwood, turning upon Carrie eyes in which she read more than the words.

Carrie laughed luxuriantly.

“If you do as well in the rest of the play, you will make us all think you are a born actress.”

Carrie smiled again. She felt the acuteness of Hurstwood’s position, and wished deeply that she could be alone with him, but she did not understand the change in Drouet. Hurstwood found that he could not talk, repressed as he was, and grudging Drouet every moment of his presence, he bowed himself out with the elegance of a Faust. Outside he set his teeth with envy.

“Damn it!” he said, “is he always going to be in the way?” He was moody when he got back to the box, and could not talk for thinking of his wretched situation.

As the curtain for the next act arose, Drouet came back. He was very much enlivened in temper and inclined to whisper, but Hurstwood pretended interest. He fixed his eyes on the stage, although Carrie was not there, a short bit of melodramatic comedy preceding her entrance. He did not see what was going on, however. He was thinking his own thoughts, and they were wretched.

The progress of the play did not improve matters for him. Carrie, from now on, was easily the centre of interest. The audience, which had been inclined to feel that nothing could be good after the first gloomy impression, now went to the other extreme and saw power where it was not. The general feeling reacted on Carrie. She presented her part with some felicity, though nothing like the intensity which had aroused the feeling at the end of the long first act.

Both Hurstwood and Drouet viewed her pretty figure with rising feelings. The fact that such ability should reveal itself in her, that they should see it set forth under such effective circumstances, framed almost in massy gold and shone upon by the appropriate lights of sentiment and personality, heightened her charm for them. She was more than the old Carrie to Drouet. He longed to be at home with her until he could tell her. He awaited impatiently the end, when they should go home alone.

Hurstwood, on the contrary, saw in the strength of her new attractiveness his miserable predicament. He could have cursed the man beside him. By the Lord, he could not even applaud feelingly as he would. For once he must simulate when it left a taste in his mouth.

It was in the last act that Carrie’s fascination for her lovers assumed its most effective character.

Hurstwood listened to its progress, wondering when Carrie would come on. He had not long to wait. The author had used the artifice of sending all the merry company for a drive, and now Carrie came in alone. It was the first time that Hurstwood had had a chance to see her facing the audience quite alone, for nowhere else had she been without a foil of some sort. He suddenly felt, as she entered, that her old strength — the power that had grasped him at the end of the first act — had come back. She seemed to be gaining feeling, now that the play was drawing to a close and the opportunity for great action was passing.

“Poor Pearl,” she said, speaking with natural pathos. “It is a sad thing to want for happiness, but it is a terrible thing to see another groping about blindly for it, when it is almost within the grasp.”

She was gazing now sadly out upon the open sea, her arm resting listlessly upon the polished door-post.

Hurstwood began to feel a deep sympathy for her and for himself. He could almost feel that she was talking to him. He was, by a combination of feelings and entanglements, almost deluded by that quality of voice and manner which, like a pathetic strain of music, seems ever a personal and intimate thing. Pathos has this quality, that it seems ever addressed to one alone.

“And yet, she can be very happy with him,” went on the little actress. “Her sunny temper, her joyous face will brighten any home.”

She turned slowly toward the audience without seeing. There was so much simplicity in her movements that she seemed wholly alone. Then she found a seat by a table, and turned over some books, devoting a thought to them.

“With no longings for what I may not have,” she breathed in conclusion — and it was almost a sigh — “my existence hidden from all save two in the wide world, and making my joy out of the joy of that innocent girl who will soon be his wife.”

Hurstwood was sorry when a character, known as Peach Blossom, interrupted her. He stirred irritably, for he wished her to go on. He was charmed by the pale face, the lissome figure, draped in pearl grey, with a coiled string of pearls at the throat. Carrie had the air of one who was weary and in need of protection, and, under the fascinating make-believe of the moment, he rose in feeling until he was ready in spirit to go to her and ease her out of her misery by adding to his own delight.

In a moment Carrie was alone again, and was saying, with animation:

“I must return to the city, no matter what dangers may lurk here. I must go, secretly if I can; openly, if I must.”

There was a sound of horses’ hoofs outside, and then Ray’s voice saying: “No, I shall not ride again. Put him up.”

He entered, and then began a scene which had as much to do with the creation of the tragedy of affection in Hurstwood as anything in his peculiar and involved career. For Carrie had resolved to make something of this scene, and, now that the cue had come, it began to take a feeling hold upon her. Both Hurstwood and Drouet noted the rising sentiment as she proceeded.

“I thought you had gone with Pearl,” she said to her lover.

“I did go part of the way, but I left the Party a mile down the road.”

“You and Pearl had no disagreement?”

“No — yes; that is, we always have. Our social barometers always stand at ‘cloudy’ and ‘overcast.’”

“And whose fault is that?” she said, easily.

“Not mine,” he answered, pettishly. “I know I do all I can — I say all I can — but she — ”

This was rather awkwardly put by Patton, but Carrie redeemed it with a grace which was inspiring.

“But she is your wife,” she said, fixing her whole attention upon the stilled actor, and softening the quality of her voice until it was again low and musical. “Ray, my friend, courtship is the text from which the whole sermon of married life takes its theme. Do not let yours be discontented and unhappy.”

She put her two little hands together and pressed them appealingly.

Hurstwood gazed with slightly parted lips. Drouet was fidgeting with satisfaction.

“To be my wife, yes,” went on the actor in a manner which was weak by comparison, but which could not now spoil the tender atmosphere which Carrie had created and maintained. She did not seem to feel that he was wretched. She would have done nearly as well with a block of wood. The accessories she needed were within her own imagination. The acting of others could not affect them.

“And you repent already?” she said, slowly.

“I lost you,” he said, seizing her little hand, “and I was at the mercy of any flirt who chose to give me an inviting look. It was your fault — you know it was — why did you leave me?”

Carrie turned slowly away, and seemed to be mastering some impulse in silence. Then she turned back.

“Ray,” she said, “the greatest happiness I have ever felt has been the thought that all your affection was forever bestowed upon a virtuous woman, your equal in family, fortune, and accomplishments. What a revelation do you make to me now! What is it makes you continually war with your happiness?”

The last question was asked so simply that it came to the audience and the lover as a personal thing.

At last it came to the part where the lover exclaimed, “Be to me as you used to be.”

Carrie answered, with affecting sweetness, “I cannot be that to you, but I can speak in the spirit of the Laura who is dead to you forever.”

“Be it as you will,” said Patton.

Hurstwood leaned forward. The whole audience was silent and intent.

“Let the woman you look upon be wise or vain,” said Carrie, her eyes bent sadly upon the lover, who had sunk into a seat, “beautiful or homely, rich or poor, she has but one thing she can really give or refuse — her heart.”

Drouet felt a scratch in his throat.

“Her beauty, her wit, her accomplishments, she may sell to you; but her love is the treasure without money and without price.”

The manager suffered this as a personal appeal. It came to him as if they were alone, and he could hardly restrain the tears for sorrow over the hopeless, pathetic, and yet dainty and appealing woman whom he loved. Drouet also was beside himself. He was resolving that he would be to Carrie what he had never been before. He would marry her, by George! She was worth it.

“She asks only in return,” said Carrie, scarcely hearing the small, scheduled reply of her lover, and putting herself even more in harmony with the plaintive melody now issuing from the orchestra, “that when you look upon her your eyes shall speak devotion; that when you address her your voice shall be gentle, loving, and kind; that you shall not despise her because she cannot understand all at once your vigorous thoughts and ambitious designs; for, when misfortune and evil have defeated your greatest purposes, her love remains to console you. You look to the trees,” she continued, while Hurstwood restrained his feelings only by the grimmest repression, “for strength and grandeur; do not despise the flowers because their fragrance is all they have to give. Remember,” she concluded, tenderly, “love is all a woman has to give,” and she laid a strange, sweet accent on the all, “but it is the only thing which God permits us to carry beyond the grave.”

The two men were in the most harrowed state of affection. They scarcely heard the few remaining words with which the scene concluded. They only saw their idol, moving about with appealing grace, continuing a power which to them was a revelation.

Hurstwood resolved a thousands things, Drouet as well. They joined equally in the burst of applause which called Carrie out. Drouet pounded his hands until they ached. Then he jumped up again and started out. As he went, Carrie came out, and, seeing an immense basket of flowers being hurried down the aisle toward her she waited. They were Hurstwood’s. She looked toward the manager’s box for a moment, caught his eye, and smiled. He could have leaped out of the box to enfold her. He forgot the need of circumspectness which his married state enforced. He almost forgot that he had with him in the box those who knew him. By the Lord, he would have that lovely girl if it took his all. He would act at once. This should be the end of Drouet, and don’t you forget it. He would not wait another day. The drummer should not have her.

He was so excited that he could not stay in the box. He went into the lobby, and then into the street, thinking. Drouet did not return. In a few minutes the last act was over, and he was crazy to have Carrie alone. He cursed the luck that could keep him smiling, bowing, shamming, when he wanted to tell her that he loved her, when he wanted to whisper to her alone. He groaned as he saw that his hopes were futile. He must even take her to supper, shamming. He finally went about and asked how she was getting along. The actors were all dressing, talking, hurrying about. Drouet was palavering himself with the looseness of excitement and passion. The manager mastered himself only by a great effort.

“We are going to supper, of course,” he said, with a voice that was a mockery of his heart.

“Oh, yes,” said Carrie, smiling.

The little actress was in fine feather. She was realising now what it was to be petted. For once she was the admired, the sought-for. The independence of success now made its first faint showing. With the tables turned, she was looking down, rather than up, to her lover. She did not fully realise that this was so, but there was something in condescension coming from her which was infinitely sweet. When she was ready they climbed into the waiting coach and drove down town; once, only, did she find an opportunity to express her feeling, and that was when the manager preceded Drouet in the coach and sat beside her. Before Drouet was fully in she had squeezed Hurstwood’s hand in a gentle, impulsive manner. The manager was beside himself with affection. He could have sold his soul to be with her alone. “Ah,” he thought, “the agony of it.”

Drouet hung on, thinking he was all in all. The dinner was spoiled by his enthusiasm. Hurstwood went home feeling as if he should die if he did not find affectionate relief. He whispered “tomorrow” passionately to Carrie, and she understood. He walked away from the drummer and his prize at parting feeling as if he could slay him and not regret. Carrie also felt the misery of it.

“Good-night,” he said, simulating an easy friendliness.

“Good-night,” said the little actress, tenderly.

“The fool!” he said, now hating Drouet. “The idiot! I’ll do him yet, and that quick! We’ll see tomorrow.”

“Well, if you aren’t a wonder,” Drouet was saying, complacently, squeezing Carrie’s arm. “You are the dandiest little girl on earth.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37