The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 23

On the Eve of Triumph

‘I have got your letter, but it tells me no more than the last did. Why don’t you say plainly what you mean? I suppose it’s something you are ashamed of. You say that there’s a chance for me of earning a large sum of money, and if you are in earnest, I shall be only too glad to hear how it’s to be done. This life is no better than what I used to lead years ago; I’m no nearer to getting a good part than I was when I first began acting, and unless I can get money to buy dresses and all the rest of it, I may go on for ever at this hateful drudgery. I shall take nothing more from you: I say it, and I mean it; but as you tell me that this chance has nothing to do with yourself, let me know what it really is. For a large sum of money there are few things I wouldn’t do. Of course it’s something disgraceful, but you needn’t be afraid on that account; I haven’t lost all my pride yet, but I know what I’m fighting for, and I won’t be beaten. Cost what it may, I’ll make people hear of me and talk of me, and I’ll pay myself back for all I’ve gone through.

So write in plain words, or come and see me.

C. V.’

She wrote at a round table, shaky on its central support, in the parlour of an indifferent lodging-house; the October afternoon drew towards dusk; the sky hung low and murky, or, rather, was itself invisible, veiled by the fume of factory chimneys; a wailing wind rattled the sash and the door. A newly lighted fire refused to flame cheerfully, half smothered in its own smoke, which every now and then was blown downwards and out into the room. The letter finished — scribbled angrily with a bad pen and in pale ink — she put it into its envelope —‘C. H. Scawthorne, Esq.’

Then a long reverie, such as she always fell into when alone and unoccupied. The face was older, but not greatly changed from that of the girl who fought her dread fight with temptation, and lost it, in the lodging at Islington, who, then as now, brooded over the wild passions in her heart and defied the world that was her enemy. Still a beautiful face, its haughty characteristics strengthened, the lips a little more sensual, a little coarser; still the same stamp of intellect upon the forehead, the same impatient scorn and misery in her eyes. She asked no one’s pity, but not many women breathed at that moment who knew more of suffering.

For three weeks she had belonged to a company on tour in the northern counties. In accordance with the modern custom — so beneficial to actors and the public — their repertory consisted of one play, the famous melodrama, ‘A Secret of the Thames,’ recommended to provincial audiences by its run of four hundred and thirty-seven nights at a London theatre. These, to be sure, were not the London actors, but advertisements in local newspapers gave it to be understood that they ‘made an ensemble in no respect inferior to that which was so long the delight of the metropolis.’ Starred on the placards was the name of Mr. Samuel Peel, renowned in the North of England; his was the company, and his the main glory in the piece. As leading lady he had the distinguished Miss Erminia Walcott; her part was a trying one, for she had to be half-strangled by ruffians and flung — most decorously — over the parapet of London Bridge. In the long list of subordinate performers occurred two names with which we are familiar, Miss Grace Danver and Miss Clara Vale. The present evening would be the third and last in a certain town of Lancashire, one of those remarkable centres of industry which pollute heaven and earth, and on that account are spoken of with somewhat more of pride than stirred the Athenian when he named his Acropolis.

Clara had just risen to stir the fire, compelled to move by the smoke that was annoying her, when, after a tap at the door, there came in a young woman of about five-and-twenty, in a plain walking costume, tall, very slender, pretty, but looking ill. At this moment there was a slight flush on her cheeks and a brightness in her eyes which obviously came of some excitement. She paused just after entering and said in an eager voice, which had a touch of huskiness:

‘What do you think? Miss Walcott’s taken her hook!’

Clara did not allow herself to be moved at this announcement. For several days what is called unpleasantness had existed between the leading lady and the manager: in other words, they had been quarrelling violently on certain professional matters, and Miss Walcott had threatened to ruin the tour by withdrawing her invaluable services. The menace was at last executed, in good earnest, and the cause of Grace Danver’s excitement was that she, as Miss Walcott’s understudy, would to-night, in all probability, be called upon to take the leading part.

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ Clara replied, very soberly.

‘You don’t look as if you cared much,’ rejoined the other, with a little irritation.

‘What do you want me to do? Am I to scream with joy because the greatest actress in the world has got her chance at last?’

There was bitterness in the irony. Whatever their friendship in days gone by, these two were clearly not on the most amiable terms at present. This was their first engagement in the same company, and it had needed but a week of association to put a jealousy and ill-feeling between them which proved fatal to such mutual kindness as they had previously cherished. Grace, now no less than in her schooldays, was fond of patronising: as the elder in years and in experience, she adopted a tone which Clara speedily resented. To heighten the danger of a conflict between natures essentially incompatible, both were in a morbid and nervous state, consumed with discontent, sensitive to the most trifling injury, abandoned to a fierce egoism, which the course of their lives and the circumstances of their profession kept constantly inflamed. Grace was of acrid and violent temper; when stung with words such as Clara was only too apt at using, she speedily lost command of herself and spoke, or even acted, frantically. Except that she had not Clara’s sensibilities, her lot was the harder of the two; for she knew herself stricken with a malady which would hunt her unsparingly to the grave. On her story I have no time to dwell; it was fall of wretchedness, which had caused her, about a year ago, to make an attempt at suicide. A little generosity, and Clara might have helped to soothe the pains of one so much weaker than herself; but noble feeling was extinct in the girl, or so nearly extinct that a breath of petty rivalry could make her base, cruel, remorseless.

‘At all events I have got my chance!’ exclaimed Grace, with a harsh laugh. ‘When you get yours, ask me to congratulate you.’

And she swept her skirts out of the room. In a few minutes Clara put a stamp on her letter and went out to the post. Her presence at the theatre would not be necessary for another two hours, but as the distance was slight, and nervousness would not let her remain at home, she walked on to make inquiry concerning Grace’s news. Rain had just begun to fall, and with it descended the smut and grime that darkened above the houses; the pavement was speedily over-smeared with sticky mud, and passing vehicles flung splashes in every direction. Odours of oil and shoddy, and all such things as characterised the town, grew more pungent under the heavy shower. On reaching the stage-door, Clara found two or three of her companions just within; the sudden departure of Miss Walcott had become known to everyone, and at this moment Mr. Peel was holding a council, to which, as the doorkeeper testified, Miss Danver had been summoned.

The manager decided to make no public announcement of what had happened before the hour came for drawing up the curtain. A scrappy rehearsal for the benefit of Grace Danver and the two or three other ladies who were affected by the necessary rearrangement went on until the last possible moment, then Mr. Peel presented himself before the drop and made a little speech. The gallery was fall of mill-hands; in the pit was a sprinkling of people; the circles and boxes presented half a dozen occupants. ‘Sudden domestic calamity . . . enforced absence of the lady who played . . . efficient substitution . . . deep regret, but confidence in the friendly feeling of audience on this last evening.’

They growled, but in the end applauded the actor-manager, who had succeeded in delicately hinting that, after all, the great attraction was still present in his own person. The play went very much as usual, but those behind the scenes were not allowed to forget that Mr. Peel was in a furious temper: the ladies noticed with satisfaction that more than once he glared ominously at Miss Danver, who naturally could not aid him to make his ‘points’ as Miss Walcott had accustomed herself to do. At his final exit, it was observed that he shrugged his shoulders and muttered a few oaths.

Clara had her familiar part; it was a poor one from every point of view, and the imbecility of the words she had to speak affected her to-night with exceptional irritation. Clara always acted in ill-humour. She despised her audience for their acceptance of the playwright’s claptrap; she felt that she could do better than any of the actresses entrusted with the more important characters; her imagination was for ever turning to powerful scenes in plays she had studied privately, and despair possessed her at the thought that she would perhaps never have a chance of putting forth her strength. Tonight her mood was one of sullen carelessness; she did little more than ‘walk through’ her part, feeling a pleasure in thus insulting the house. One scrap of dialogue she had with Grace, and her eyes answered with a flash of hatred to the arrogance of the other’s regard. At another point she all but missed her cue, for her thoughts were busy with that letter to which she had replied this afternoon. Mr. Peel looked at her savagely, and she met his silent rebuke with an air of indifference. After that the manager appeared to pay peculiar attention to her as often as they were together before the footlights. It was not the first time that Mr. Peel had allowed her to see that she was an object of interest to him.

There was an after-piece, but Clara was not engaged in it. When, at the fall of the curtain on the melodrama, she went to the shabby dressing-room which she shared with two companions, a message delivered by the call boy bade her repair as soon as possible to the manager’s office. What might this mean? She was startled on the instant, but speedily recovered her self-control; most likely she was to receive a rating — let it come! Without unusual hurry, she washed, changed her dress, and obeyed the summons.

Mr. Peel was still a young man, of tall and robust stature, sanguine, with much sham refinement in his manner; he prided himself on the civility with which he behaved to all who had business relations with him, but every now and then the veneer gave an awkward crack, and, as in his debate with Miss Walcott, the man himself was discovered to be of coarse grain. His aspect was singular when, on Clara’s entrance into the private room, he laid down his cigarette and scrutinised her. There was a fiery hue on his visage, and the scowl of his black eyebrows had a peculiar ugliness.

‘Miss Vale,’ he began, after hesitation, ‘do you consider that you played your part this evening with the conscientiousness that may fairly be expected of you?’

‘Perhaps not,’ replied the girl, averting her eyes, and resting her hand on the table.

‘And may I ask why not?’

‘I didn’t feel in the humour. The house saw no difference.’

‘Indeed? The house saw no difference? Do you mean to imply that you always play badly?’

‘I mean that the part isn’t worth any attention — even if they were able to judge.’

There was a perfection of insolence in her tone that in itself spoke strongly for the abilities she could display if occasion offered.

‘This is rather an offhand way of treating the subject, madam,’ cried Mr. Peel. ‘If you disparage our audiences, I beg you to observe that it is much the same thing as telling me that my own successes are worthless!’

‘I intended nothing of the kind.’

‘Perhaps not.’ He thrust his hands into his pockets, and looked down at his boots for an instant. ‘So you are discontented with your part?’

‘It’s only natural that I should be.’

‘I presume you think yourself equal to Juliet, or perhaps Lady Macbeth?’

‘I could play either a good deal better than most women do.’

The manager laughed, by no means ill-humouredly.

‘I’m sorry I can’t bring you out in Shakespeare just at present, Miss Vale; but — should you think it a condescension to play Laura Denton?’

This was Miss Walcott’s part, now Grace Danver’s. Clara looked at him with mistrust; her breath did not come quite naturally.

‘How long would it take you, do you think,’ pursued the other, ‘to get the words?’

‘An hour or two; I all but know them.’

The manager took a few paces this way and that.

‘We go on to Bolton tomorrow morning. Could you undertake to be perfect for the afternoon rehearsal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I’ll try you. Here’s a copy you can take. I make no terms, you understand; it’s an experiment. We’ll have another talk tomorrow. Good-night.’

She left the room. Near the door stood Grace Danver and another actress, both of whom were bidden to wait upon the manager before leaving. Clara passed under the fire of their eyes, but scarcely observed them.

Rain drenched her between the theatre and her lodgings, for she did not think of putting up an umbrella; she thought indeed of nothing; there was fire and tumult in her brain. On the round table in her sitting-room supper was made ready, but she did not heed it. Excitement compelled her to walk incessantly round and round the scanty space of floor. Already she had begun to rehearse the chief scenes of Laura Denton; she spoke the words with all appropriate loudness and emphasis; her gestures were those of the stage, as though an audience sat before her; she seemed to have grown taller. There came a double knock at the house-door, but it did not attract her attention; a knock at her own room, and only when some one entered was she recalled to the present. It was Grace again; her lodging was elsewhere, and this late visit could have but one motive.

They stood face to face. The elder woman was so incensed that her lips moved fruitlessly, like those of a paralytic.

‘I suppose you’re going to make a scene,’ Clara addressed her. ‘Please remember how late it is, and don’t let all the house hear you.’

‘You mean to tell me you accepted that offer of Peel’s — without saying a word — without as much as telling him that he ought to speak to me first?’

‘Certainly I did. I’ve waited long enough; I’m not going to beat about the bush when my chance comes.’

‘And you called yourself my friend?’

‘I’m nobody’s friend but my own in an affair of this kind. If you’d been in my place you’d have done just the same.’

‘I wouldn’t! I couldn’t have been such a mean creature! Every man and woman in the company’ll cry shame on you.’

‘Don’t deafen me with your nonsense! If you played the part badly, I suppose some one else must take it. You were only on trial, like I shall be.’

Grace was livid with fury.

‘Played badly! As if we didn’t all know how you’ve managed it! Much it has to do with good or bad acting! We know how creatures of your kind get what they want.’

Before the last word was uttered she was seized with a violent fit of coughing; her cheeks flamed, and spots of blood reddened on the handkerchief she put to her mouth. Half-stifled, she lay back in the angle of the wall by the door. Clara regarded her with a contemptuous pity, and when the cough had nearly ceased, said coldly:

‘I’m not going to try and match you in insulting language; I dare say you’d beat me at that. If you take my advice, you’ll go home and take care of yourself; you look ill enough to be in bed. I don’t care what you or anyone else thinks of me; what you said just now was a lie, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got the part, and I’ll take good care that I keep it. You talk about us being friends; I should have thought you knew by this time that there’s no such thing as friendship or generosity or feeling for women who have to make their way in the world. You’ve had your hard times as well as I, and what’s the use of pretending what you don’t believe? You wouldn’t give up a chance for me; I’m sure I should never expect you to. We have to fight, to fight for everything, and the weak get beaten. That’s what life has taught me.’

‘You’re right,’ was the other’s reply, given with a strangely sudden calmness. ‘And we’ll see who wins.’

Clara gave no thought to the words, nor to the look of deadly enmity that accompanied them. Alone again, she speedily became absorbed in a vision of the triumph which she never doubted was near at hand. A long, long time it seemed since she had sold herself to degradation: with this one hope. You see that she had formulated her philosophy of life since then; a child of the nether world whom fate had endowed with intellect, she gave articulate utterance to what is seething in the brains of thousands who fight and perish in the obscure depths. The bitter bargain was issuing to her profit at last; she would yet attain that end which had shone through all her misery — to be known as a successful actress by those she had abandoned, whose faces were growing dim to her memory, but of whom, in truth, she still thought more than of all the multitudinous unknown public. A great success during the remainder of this tour, and she might hope for an engagement in London. Her portraits would at length be in the windows; some would recognise her.

Yet she was not so pitiless as she boasted. The next morning, when she met Grace, there came a pain at her heart in seeing the ghastly, bloodless countenance which refused to turn towards her. Would Grace be able to act at all at the next town? Yes, one more scene.

They reached Bolton. In the afternoon the rehearsal took place, but the first representation was not until tomorrow. Clara saw her name attached to the leading female character on bills rapidly printed and distributed through the town. She went about in a dream, rather a delirium. Mr. Peel used his most affable manner to her; his compliments after the rehearsal were an augury of great things. And the eventful evening approached.

To give herself plenty of time to dress (the costumes needed for the part were fortunately simple, and Mr. Peel had advanced her money to make needful purchases) she left her lodgings at half-past six. It was a fine evening, but very dark in the two or three by-streets along which she had to pass to reach the theatre. She waited a minute on the doorstep to let a troop of female mill-hands go by; their shoes clanked on the pavement, and they were singing in chorus, a common habit of their kind in leaving work. Then she started and walked quickly. .

Close by the stage-door, which was in a dark, narrow passage, stood a woman with veiled face, a shawl muffling the upper part of her body. Since six o’clock she had been waiting about the spot, occasionally walking to a short distance, but always keeping her face turned towards the door. One or two persons came up and entered; she observed them, but held aloof. Another drew near. The woman advanced, and, as she did so, freed one of her arms from the shawl.

‘That you, Grace?’ said Clara, almost kindly, for in her victorious joy she was ready to be at peace with all the world.

The answer was something dashed violently in her face — something fluid and fiery — something that ate into her flesh, that frenzied her with pain, that drove her shrieking she knew not whither.

Late in the same night, a pointsman, walking along the railway a little distance out of the town, came upon the body of a woman, train-crushed, horrible to view. She wore the dress of a lady; a shawl was still partly wrapped about her, and her hands were gloved. Nothing discoverable upon her would have helped strangers in the task of identification, and as for her face — But a missing woman was already sought by the police, and when certain persons were taken to view this body, they had no difficulty in pronouncing it that of Grace Danver.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:18