Imatges de pÓgina
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play was Congreve's tragedy of "The Mourning Bride," one of the best of a class of sentimental and stiltified dramatic productions which the public of our great-grandfathers meekly accepted, – quaffing the frothy small-beer of rant and affectation, in lieu of deep draughts of Nature and passion, the rich, red wine of human life, poured generously forth by the dramatists of a better era. The excesses of fashion then prevailing, hoops, high heels, powder, and patches, were not more essentially absurd and artificial than such representations of high-life and hightragedy.

"The Mourning Bride" contains a few situations in which real passion can have play, some fine points and poetic passages, and its moral tone is at least respectable, not great things to say of a famous tragedy, certainly, but they give it an honorable distinction over many plays of its time. There figure in it one or two characters which can be made interesting, and even impres sive, by uncommon power in the actor; though they were usually given, at the period of which I write, in a manner sufficiently tame to suit the dullest of courts, -likely to disturb neither my lord in his napping nor my lady in her prim flirting.

Zara, the Captive Queen, is beyond comparison the strong character of this play. There is a spice and fire even in her wickedness, which make her terribly attractive, and give her a more powerful hold on the sympathies than the decorous and dolorous Almeria, for all her virtuous sorrows and perplexities. Zara's passion is of the true Oriental type, leaping from the extremes of love and hate with the fierceness and rapidity of lightning.

It is a character in which several great actresses have distinguished themselves, -chief among them Siddons. On the memorable night at Arden, however, it was but wretchedly rendered by a tall, small-voiced, flaxen-haired young woman, who stalked about the stage in highheeled shoes and prodigious hoops, and

declaimed the most fiery passages with an execrable drawl. The remainder of the company were barely passable as strolling players, with the exception of the actor who personated Osmyn. This was a young man named Bury, of respectable parentage and education, it was said, and considerable reputation, though his aspiring buskin had never yet trod the London boards. He was a handsome, shapely person, with an assured, dashing manner, and a great amount of spirit and fire, which usually passed with his audience, and always with himself, for genius.

His voice was powerful and resonant, his elocution effective, if not faultless, and his physical energy inexhaustible. Understanding and managing perfectly his own resources, he produced upon most provincial critics the impression of extraordinary power and promise, few perceiving that he had already come into full possession of his dramatic gifts.

Only finely-trained ears could discover in this sounding, shining metal the lack of the sharp, musical ring of the genuine coin. Young men grew frantic in applause of his bold action, his stormy declamation, his startling tours de force; while young women wondered, wept, languished, and swooned. It was said, that, whenever he died in Romeo, Pierre, or Zanga, numbers of his fair slain were borne out of the playhouse, to be revived with difficulty by the application of salts and the severing of stay-lacings. But his effects, though so positive, were superficial and evanescent,―audible, visible, and, as it were, physical. There was always wanting that fine shock of genuine passion, striking home to kindred passions in the breasts of his auditors, and sending through every nerve a magnetic shiver of delight,- that subtile, mysterious element of genius, playing like quick flame along the dullest lines of the poet and charging them with its own life and fire.

In the virtuous, but negative character of Osmyn there was little room for effective declamation; our actor was fain

to content himself with being interesting, through the misfortunes of the Prince of Valentia, his woful lawful love, and the besettings of an unreturned passion. In this he succeeded so well, that the feminine portion of his audience grew tender with Almeria, and despairing with Zara.

In the first scene with Almeria, who was a shade worse than the Zara of the night, the young actor indulged himself in a cool, comprehensive glance at the house, over her fair shoulders. As his keen gaze swept round the small aristocratic circle, it encountered and seemed to recognize the face of Zelma Burleigh, now kindling with a new enthusiasm, which was never wholly to die out of her breast. There was something in the watchful, absorbed gaze of her great dark eyes so unlike the wondering or languishing looks usually bent by women upon the rising actor, that on the instant he was struck, pierced, by those subtile shafts of light, to the heart he had believed till then vowed alone to the love of his art and the schemes of a sleepless ambition.

Reluctantly he withdrew his regard from a face which bespoke a character of singular originality and force, not wanting either in womanly pride or tenderness,-a face in which beauty itself was so subordinate to something higher, more ineffable, that one could scarcely define feature or color through the illuminated and changeful atmosphere of soul which hung about it,the shadows of great thoughts, the light mists of dreamy and evanescent fancy.

It was toward the close of the second act, when Sir Harry Willerton, of Willerton Hall, entered his box, accompanied by three or four dashing companions, who, it was soon whispered about, were titled young bloods from London.

Sir Harry Willerton was a fresh, franklooking young gallant,-fast, from the fiery impulses of youth and a high spirit,

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ormation is possible or reclamation worth the while.

Sir Harry was not fond of tragedy; and after five minutes' strained attention to the players, he turned his eyes from the stage, and began casting easy, goodhumored glances of curiosity or recognition over the audience. He bowed to all his neighbors with a kindly familiarity, untainted by condescension, but most courteously, perhaps, to the party from the Grange. He liked the bluff Squire heartily,-as who did not? Then his eye - a laughing blue eye it was- - rested and lingered, not on the dark, dramatic face of Zelma, but on the pretty, girlish head of her cousin.

Bessie sat with her face partly averted from the baronet's gay party, and her gaze fixed intently upon the stage. Sir Harry could only see half the rose of one cheek, and the soft sweep of golden hair which lightly shaded it; and feasting his fancy on that bit of fluctuating color, entangled in the meshes of a tremulous screen of curls, he settled himself to await the close of the act.

It was with a child's eager interest and pliant imagination that Bessie looked and listened, susceptible, credulous, unfastidious. To her, the Osmyn of the night was radiant with all heroic qualities and manly graces, the weakly simulated sorrow of Almeria brought real tears to her eyes, and she drew her white shoulders forward with a shudder when the wooden Zara kindled into cursing and jealous rage. Illusions most transparent to others hoodwinked her senses; her willing fancy supplied feeling, and even made up for deficiencies of art in the players, till the mimic world before her became more real than reality.

Not so with Zelma. She was satisfied, even charmed, with the personation of Osmyn; but, from the first, she could not abide either of the heroines, who, each in her part, strove to outdo the other in mincing, mouthing, attitudinizing, and all imaginable small sins against Nature and Art. She saw at once, by the sure intuitions of genius, how everything they did

could be done better, and burned to do it. The part of Almeria she soon dismissed from her thoughts, as mere milk-andwater; but she saw that in that of Zara there was a stream of lava, though dulled and crusted over by the coldness of the actress, which might be made to sweep all before it. Her critical dissatisfaction with the personation became, at last, little short of torture; there was an involuntary lowering of her dark brows, a scornful quiver of her spirited nostril, she bit her lip with angry impatience, and shrugged her shoulders with irrepressible contempt.

In the great scene where Zara surprises Almeria in the cell of Osmyn, it was astonishing how the flaxen-haired representative of the Captive Queen managed to turn her fiery rain of curses into a little pattering shower of womanish reproaches. It was really a masterly performance, in its way.

At this point Zelma threw herself back in utter weariness and disgust, exclaiming, audibly, —“Miserable !— most miserable!" When, looking round, she saw the traces of her cousin's innocent emotion, the flush and tearfulness which bespoke her uncritical sympathy with passions so unskilfully represented, she could not suppress a smile at such childish simplicity. And yet this was also her first play.

The tragedy was succeeded by a farce, at which Bessie laughed as heartily as she had wept a little while before, but which was utterly distasteful to Zelma; and at an alarmingly late hour, for that quiet community, the green curtain came heavily plunging down on the final scene of all, and the audience dispersed to their homes.

On the day following, Sir Harry Willerton's guests returned to town, but, to their surprise, unaccompanied by their host, who seemed to have suddenly discovered that his presence was needed on his estate. So he remained. Soon it was remarked that a singular intimacy had sprung up between him and Squire Burleigh, with whom, at length, the larger

portion of his time was passed, either in following the hounds or dining at the Grange. There were rumors and surmises that the attractions which drew the young baronet to his bluff neighbor's hospitable hall were not the Squire's hearty cheer, old wine, and older stories, but a pair of shy, yet tender eyes, red lips, that smiled a wordless welcome, and sometimes pouted at a late coming,-cheeks whose blushes daily grew warmer in love's ripening glow,-a voice whose tones daily grew deeper, and seemed freighted with more delicious meanings.

There was little discussion as to which of the young ladies of the Grange was the enchantress and the elect Lady Willerton.

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'Surely," said the gossips, "it cannot be that gypsy niece of the Squire,—that odd, black-browed girl, who scours over the country in all weathers, on that elfish black pony, with her hair flying,- for all the world as though in search of her wild relations. No, the blood of the Willertons would never run so low as that ;it must be sweet Miss Bessie, and she is a match for a lord."

For once the gossips were right. But it is with the poor "Rommany girl," not with the heiress of Burleigh Grange, that we have to do.

On the morning succeeding the play, Zelma Burleigh, taking in her hand an odd volume of Shakspeare, one of the few specimens of dramatic literature which her uncle's scant library afforded, strolled down a lonely lane, running back from the house, toward the high pasture-lands, on which grazed and basked the wealthy Squire's goodly flocks and herds. This was her favorite walk, as it was the most quiet, shaded, out-of-the-way by-path on the estate. She now directed her steps to a little rustic seat, almost hidden from view by the pendent branches of an old willow-tree, and close under a hawthornhedge, now in full, fragrant bloom. Here she seated herself, or rather flung herself down, half languidly, half petulantly, an expression of ennui and unrest darkening her face, the dusky traces of a

sleepless night hanging heavily about her eyes. She opened her book at the play of "Romeo and Juliet," and began to read, not silently, nor yet aloud, but in a low, dreamy tone, in which the sounds of Nature about her, the gurgle of a brook behind the hedge, the sighing of the winds among the pendulous branches of the willow, the silver shiver of the lance-like leaves, the murmurous coming and going of bees, the loving duets of nest-building birds, all seemed to mingle and merge. As she read, a new light seemed to illumine the page, caught from her recent experience of dramatic personation and scenic effects, limited and unsatisfactory though that experience had been. In fancy, she floated over the stage, as the gay young Juliet at the masquerade; then she caught sight of young Romeo, and, lo his face was that of the sentimental hero of the last night's tragedy, but ennobled by the giow and dignity of genuine passion. In fancy, she sat on the balcony, communing with night and the stars, the newly-risen star of love silvering all life for her. Then, leaning her cheek upon her hand, she poured forth Juliet's impassioned apostrophe. When she came to the passage,—

"O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Ro meo?"

she was startled by a rustling of the leaves behind her. She paused and looked round fearfully. A blackbird

darted out of the hedge and away over the fields. Zelma smiled at her own alarm, and read on, till she reached the tender adjuration,

"Romeo, doff thy name; And for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself!"

when, suddenly, a fragrant shower of hawthorn-blossoms fell upon the page before her, and the next instant there lightly vaulted over the hedge at her side the hero of her secret thoughts, the young player, Lawrence Bury! He stood before her, flushed and smiling, with his head uncovered, and in an attitude of respectful homage; yet, with a look and

tone of tender, unmistakable meaning, took up the words of the play,

"I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I'll be new-baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo."

Poor Zelma did not have the presence of mind to greet this sudden apparition of a lover in the apt words of her part,—' "What man art thou, that, thus bescreened in night,

So stumblest on my counsel?"

She had no words at all for the intruder, but, frightened and bewildered, sprang from her seat and turned her face toward home, with a startled bird's first impulse to flight. As she rose, her book slid from her lap and fell among the daisies at her feet. The actor caught it up and presented it to her, with the grace of a courtly knight restoring the dropped glove of a princess, but, as he did so, exclaimed, in a half-playful tone, looking at the volume rather than the lady,—

"I thank thee, O my master, for af fording me so fair an excuse for mine audacity!"

Then, assuming a more earnest manner, he proceeded to make excuses and entreat pardon for the suddenness, informality, and presumption of his appear ance before her:

“You know, Madam,” he said,—“ if, indeed, you are so unfortunate as to know anything about us,—that we players are an impulsive, unconventional class of beings, lawless and irresponsible, the Gypsies of Art."

Here Zelma flushed and drew herself up, while a suspicious glance shot from her eyes;-but the stranger seemed not to understand or perceive it, for he went on quite innocently, and with increasing earnestness of tone and man

ner:

"I know I have been presuming, impertinent, audacious, in thus intruding myself upon you, and acknowledge that you would be but severely just in banishing me instantly from your bright presence, and in withdrawing from me forever the light of your adorable eyes. Oh, those eyes!" he continued, clasping his

hands in an ecstasy of lover-like enthusiasm," those wild, sweet orbs!-bewildering lights of love, dear as life, but cruel as death!—can they not quicken, even as they slay? Oh, gentle lady, be like her of Verona!-be gracious, be kind, or, at least, be merciful, and do not banish me!

'For exile hath more terror in his look,

Much more, than death; do not say banishment!"

He paused, but did not remove his passionate looks from the young girl's face,- looks which, though cast down, for he was much the taller of the two, had the effect of most lowly and deprecating entreaty;- and then there happened an event,―a very slight, common, natural event, the result more of girlish embarrassment than of any conscious emotion or purpose, yet of incalculable importance at that moment, and, perhaps, decisive of the fate of two human hearts, - Zelma smiled. It was a quick, involuntary smile, which seemed to escape from the firm lips and half-averted eyes, flashed over the face, touched the cold features with strange radiance, and then was gone, and, in its place, the old shadow of reserve and distrust, for the moment, darker than ever.

But to the adventurous lover that brief light had revealed his doubtful way clear before him. He saw, with a thrill of exultation, that henceforth he had really nothing to fear from such womanly defences as he had counted on,-coldness, prejudice, disdain,—that all he had taken for these were but unsubstantial shadows. Still he showed no premature triumph in word or look, but remained silent and humble, waiting the reply to his passionate appeal, as though life or death, in very truth, were depending upon it. And Zelma spoke at last,-briefly and coldly, but in a manner neither suspicious nor unfriendly. She herself, she said, was unconventional,-in her instincts, at least,

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mad.

Still she was not a Juliet, though he, for all she knew, might be a Romeo ; and only in lands verging on the tropics, or in the soul of a poet, could a passion like that of the gentle Veronese spring up, bud, and blossom, in a single night. As for her, the fogs of England, the heavy chill of its social atmosphere, had obstructed the ripening sunshine of romance and repressed the flowering of the heart

“And kept your beautiful nature all the more pure and fresh!" exclaimed Mr. Lawrence Bury, with real or well-assumed enthusiasm ; but Zelma, replying to his interruption only by a slight blush, went on to say, that she had been taught that poetry, art, and romances were all idle pastimes and perilous lures, unbecoming and unwholesome to a young English gentlewoman, whose manifest destiny it was to tread the dull, beaten track of domestic duty, with spirit chastened and conformed. She had had, she would acknowledge, some aspirations and rebellious repinings, some wild day-dreams of life of another sort; but it was best that she should put these down,—yes, doubtless, best that she should fall into her place in the ranks of duty and staid respectability, and be a mere gentlewoman, like the rest. Here a slight shrug of the shoulders and curl of the lip contradicted her words,-yet, with a tone of rigid determination, she added, that it was also best she should cherish no tastes and form no associations which might distract her imagination and further turn her heart from this virtuous resolution; and therefore must she say farewell, firmly and finally, to the, she doubted not, most worthy gentleman who had done her the honor to entertain for her sentiments of such high consideration and romantic devotion. She would not deny that his intrusion on her privacy had, at first, startled and displeased her, —but she already accepted it as an eccentricity of dramatic genius, a thoughtless offence, and, being, as she trusted, at once the first and the last, pardonable. She wished him happiness, fame, fortune,

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