Berenice - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Berenice ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

Matravers is „an Apostle of Aestheticism” with „fixed views of life, down to even it’s most trifling details.” „A poet, philosopher, and man of fashion” who has „no intimate friends.” He writes for the London papers and reviews. One evening he is taken to the theater by a friend to see a „Norwegian” play by Istein, which he savages in his review. However the actress who plays the lead, Berenice, is brilliant, and is the same woman with whom he has been exchanging coy glances in the Park for six months. Slowly Matravers and Berenice grow closer. He writes a play for her which is a huge success. On the cusp of their romance....her past comes to light...

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Liczba stron: 166

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER I

“YOU may not care for the play,” Ellison said eagerly. “You are of the old world, and Isteinism to you will simply spell chaos and vulgarity. But the woman! well, you will see her! I don’t want to prejudice you by praises which you would certainly think extravagant! I will say nothing.”

Matravers smiled gravely as he took his seat in the box and looked out with some wonder at the ill-lit, half-empty theatre.

“I am afraid,” he said, “that I am very much out of place here, yet do not imagine that I bring with me any personal bias whatever. I know nothing of the play, and Isteinism is merely a phrase to me. To-night I have no individuality. I am a critic.”

“So much depends,” Ellison remarked, “upon the point of view. I am afraid that you are the last man in the world to have any sympathy with the decadent.”

“I do not properly understand the use of the word ‘decadent,’” Matravers said. “But you need not be alarmed as to my attitude. Whatever my own gods may be, I am no slave to them. Isteinism has its devotees, and whatever has had humanity and force enough in it to attract a following must at least demand a respectful attention from the Press. And to-night I am the Press!”

“I am sorry,” Ellison remarked, glancing out into the gloomy well of the theatre with an impatient frown, “that there is so bad a house to-night. It is depressing to play seriously to a handful of people!”

“It will not affect my judgment,” Matravers said.

“It will affect her acting, though,” Ellison replied gloomily. “There are times when, even to us who know her strength, and are partial to her, she appears to act with difficulty,–to be encumbered with all the diffidence of the amateur. For a whole scene she will be little better than a stick. The change, when it comes, is like a sudden fire from Heaven. Something flashes into her face, she becomes inspired, she holds us breathless, hanging upon every word; it is then one realizes that she is a genius.”

“Let us hope,” Matravers said, “that some such moment may visit her to-night. One needs some compensation for a dinnerless evening, and such surroundings as these!”

He turned from the contemplation of the dreary, half-empty auditorium with a faint shudder. The theatre was an ancient and unpopular one. The hall-mark of failure and poverty was set alike upon the tawdry and faded hangings, the dust-eaten decorations and the rows of bare seats. It was a relief when the feeble overture came to an end, and the curtain was rung up. He settled himself down at once to a careful appreciation of the performance.

Matravers was not in any sense of the word a dramatic critic. He was a man of letters; amongst the elect he was reckoned a master in his art. He occupied a singular, in many respects a unique, position. But in matters dramatic, he confessed to an ignorance which was strictly actual and in no way assumed. His presence at the New Theatre on that night, which was to become for him a very memorable one, was purely a matter of chance and good nature. The greatest of London dailies had decided to grant a passing notice to the extraordinary series of plays, which in flightier journals had provoked something between the blankest wonderment and the most boisterous ridicule. Their critic was ill–Matravers, who had at first laughed at the idea, had consented after much pressure to take his place. He felt himself from the first confronted with a difficult task, yet he entered upon it with a certain grave seriousness, characteristic of the man, anxious to arrive at and to comprehend the true meaning of what in its first crude presentation to his senses seemed wholly devoid of anything pertaining to art.

The first act was almost over before the heroine of the play, and the actress concerning whose merits there was already some difference of opinion, appeared. A little burst of applause, half-hearted from the house generally, enthusiastic from a few, greeted her entrance. Ellison, watching his companion’s face closely, was gratified to find a distinct change there. In Matravers’ altered expression was something more than the transitory sensation of pleasure, called up by the unexpected appearance of a very beautiful woman. The whole impassiveness of that calm, almost marble-still face, with its set, cold lips, and slightly wearied eyes, had suddenly disappeared, and what Ellison had hoped for had arrived. Matravers was, without doubt, interested.

Yet the woman, whose appearance had caused a certain thrill to quiver through the house, and whose coming had certainly been an event to Matravers, did absolutely nothing for the remainder of that dreary first act to redeem the forlorn play, or to justify her own peculiar reputation. She acted languidly, her enunciation was imperfect, her gestures were forced and inapt. When the curtain went down upon the first act, Matravers was looking grave. Ellison was obviously uneasy.

“Berenice,” he muttered, “is not herself to-night. She will improve. You must suspend your judgment.”

Matravers fingered his programme nervously.

“You are interested in this production, Ellison,” he said, “and I should be sorry to write anything likely to do it harm. I think it would be better if I went away now. I cannot be blamed if I decline to give an opinion on anything which I have only partially seen.”

Ellison shook his head.

“No, I’ll chance it,” he said. “Don’t go. You haven’t seen Berenice at her best yet. You have not seen her at all, in fact.”

“What I have seen,” Matravers said gravely, “I do not like.”

“At least,” Ellison protested, “she is beautiful.”

“According to what canons of beauty, I wonder?” Matravers remarked. “I hold myself a very poor judge of woman’s looks, but I can at least recognize the classical and Renaissance standards. The beauty which this woman possesses, if any, is of the decadent order. I do not recognize it. I cannot appreciate it!”

Ellison laughed softly. He had a marvellous belief in this woman and in her power of attracting.

“You are not a woman’s man, Matravers, or you would know that her beauty is not a matter of curves and colouring! You cannot judge her as a piece of statuary. All your remarks you would retract if you talked with her for five minutes. I am not sure,” he continued, “that I dare not warrant you to retract them before this evening is over. At least, I ask you to stay. I will run my risk of your pulverization.”

The curtain rang up again, the play proceeded. But not the same play–at least, so it seemed to Matravers–not the same play, surely not the same woman! A situation improbable enough, but dramatic, had occurred at the very beginning of the second act. She had risen to the opportunity, triumphed over it, electrified her audience, delighted Ellison, moved Matravers to silent wonder. Her personality seemed to have dilated with the flash of genius which Matravers himself had been amongst the first to recognize. The strange pallor of her face seemed no longer the legacy of ill-health; her eyes, wonderfully soft and dark, were lit now with all manner of strange fires. She carried herself with supreme grace; there was not the faintest suspicion of staginess in any one of her movements. And more wonderful than anything to Matravers, himself a delighted worshipper of the beautiful in all human sounds, was that marvellously sweet voice, so low and yet so clear, expressing with perfect art the highest and most hallowed emotions, with the least amount of actual sound. She seemed to pour out the vial of her wrath, her outraged womanhood in tones raised little above a whisper, and the man who fronted her seemed turned into the actual semblance of an ashamed and unclean thing. Matravers made no secret now of his interest. He had drawn his chair to the front of the box, and the footlights fell full upon his pale, studious face turned with grave and absolute attention upon the little drama working itself out upon the stage. Ellison in the midst of his jubilation found time to notice what to him seemed a somewhat singular incident. In crossing the stage her eyes had for a moment met Matravers’ earnest gaze, and Ellison could almost have declared that a faint, welcoming light flashed for a moment from the woman to the man. Yet he was sure that the two were strangers. They had never met–her very name had been unknown to him. It must have been his fancy.

The curtain fell upon the second and final act amidst as much applause as the sparsely filled theatre could offer; but mingled with it, almost as the last words of her final speech had left her lips, came a curious hoarse cry from somewhere in the cheaper seats near the back of the house. It was heard very distinctly in every part; it rang out upon the deep quivering stillness which reigns for a second between the end of a play which has left the audience spellbound, and the burst of applause which is its first reawakening instinct. It was drowned in less than a moment, yet many people turned their startled heads towards the rows of back seats. Matravers, one of the first to hear it, was one of the most interested–perhaps because his sensitive ears had recognized in it that peculiar inflection, the true ring of earnestness. For it was essentially a human cry, a cry of sorrow, a strange note charged in its very hoarseness and spontaneity with an unutterable pathos. It was as though it had been actually drawn from the heart to the lips, and long after the house had become deserted, Matravers stood there, his hands resting upon the edge of the box, and his dark face turned steadfastly to that far-away corner, where it seemed to him that he could see a solitary, human figure, sitting with bowed head amongst the wilderness of empty seats.

Ellison touched him upon the elbow.

“You must come with me and be presented to Berenice,” he said.

Matravers shook his head.

“Please excuse me,” he said; “I would really rather not.”

Ellison held out a crumpled half-sheet of notepaper.

“This has just been brought in to me,” he said.

Matravers read the single line, hastily written, and in pencil:–

“Bring your friend to me.–B.”

“It will scarcely take us a moment,” Ellison continued. “Don’t stop to put on your coat; we are the last in the theatre now.”

Matravers, whose will was usually a very dominant one, found himself calmly obeying his companion. Following Ellison, he was bustled down a long, narrow passage, across a bare wilderness of boards and odd pieces of scenery, to the door of a room immediately behind the stage. As Ellison raised his fingers to knock, it was opened from the inside, and Berenice came out wrapped from head to foot in a black satin coat, and with a piece of white lace twisted around her hair. She stopped when she saw the two men, and held out her hand to Ellison, who immediately introduced Matravers.

Again Ellison fancied that in her greeting of him there were some traces of a former knowledge. But nothing in her words or in his alluded to it.

“I am very much honoured,” Matravers said simply. “I am a rare attendant at the theatre, and your performance gave me great pleasure.”

“I am very glad,” she answered. “Do you know that you made me wretchedly nervous? I was told just as I was going on that you had come to smash us all to atoms in that terrible Day.”

“I came as a critic,” he answered, “but I am a very incompetent one. Perhaps you will appreciate my ignorance more when I tell you that this is my first visit behind the scenes of a theatre.”

She laughed softly, and they looked around together at the dimly burning gas-lights, the creaking scenery being drawn back from the stage, the woman with a brush and mop sweeping, and at that dismal perspective of holland-shrouded auditorium beyond, now quite deserted.

“At least,” she said, “your impressions cannot be mixed ones. It is hideous here.”

He did not contradict her; and they both ignored Ellison’s murmured compliment.

“It is very draughty,” he remarked, “and you seem cold; we must not keep you here. May we–can I,” he added, glancing down the stone passage, “show you to your carriage?”

She laughed softly.

“You may come with me,” she said, “but our exit is like a rabbit burrow; we must go in single file, and almost on hands and knees.”

She led the way, and they followed her into the street. A small brougham was waiting at the door, and her maid was standing by it. The commissionaire stood away, and Matravers closed the carriage door upon them. Her white, ungloved hand, loaded–overloaded it seemed to him–with rings, stole through the window, and he held it for a moment in his. He felt somehow that he was expected to say something. She was looking at him very intently. There was some powder on her cheeks, which he noted with an instinctive thrill of aversion.

“Shall I tell him home?” he asked.

“If you please,” she answered.

“Madam!” her maid interposed.

“Home, please,” Berenice said calmly. “Good-by, Mr. Matravers.”

“Good night.”

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