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The Primadonna, Page 2

F. Marion Crawford


  In the lives of professionals, whatever their profession may be, theordinary work of the day makes very little impression on the memory,whereas a very strong and lasting one is often made by circumstanceswhich a man of leisure or a woman of the world might barely notice,and would soon forget. In Margaret's life there were but two sorts ofdays, those on which she was to sing and those on which she was atliberty. In the one case she had a cutlet at five o'clock, and supperwhen she came home; in the other, she dined like other people and wentto bed early. At the end of a season in New York, the evenings onwhich she had sung all seemed to have been exactly alike; the peoplehad always applauded at the same places, she had always been calledout about the same number of times, she had always felt very muchthe same pleasure and satisfaction, and she had invariably eaten hersupper with the same appetite. Actors lead far more emotional livesthan singers, partly because they have the excitement of a new piecemuch more often, with the tremendous nervous strain of a first night,and largely because they are not obliged to keep themselves in suchperfect training. To an actor a cold, an indigestion, or a headacheis doubtless an annoyance; but to a leading singer such an accidentalmost always means the impossibility of appearing at all, withserious loss of money to the artist, and grave disappointment to thepublic. The result of all this is that singers, as a rule, are muchmore normal, healthy, and well-balanced people than other musicians,or than actors. Moreover they generally have very strong bodies andconstitutions to begin with, and when they have not they break downyoung.

  Paul Griggs had an old traveller's preference for having plenty oftime, and he was on board the steamer on Saturday a full hour beforeshe was to sail; his not very numerous belongings, which looked asweather-beaten as himself, were piled up unopened in his cabin, and hehimself stood on the upper promenade deck watching the passengers asthey came on board. He was an observant man, and it interested him tonote the expression of each new face that appeared; for the factof starting on a voyage across the ocean is apt to affect peopleinversely as their experience. Those who cross often look sounconcerned that a casual observer might think they were not to startat all, whereas those who are going for the first time are eithervisibly flurried, or are posing to look as if they were not, thoughthey are intensely nervous about their belongings; or they try toappear as if they belonged to the ship, or else as if the shipbelonged to them, making observations which are supposed to benautical, but which instantly stamp them as unutterable land-lubbersin the shrewd estimation of the stewards; and the latter, as every oldhand is aware, always know everything much better than the captain.

  Margaret Donne had been the most sensible and simple of young girls,and when she appeared at the gangway very quietly dressed in brown,with a brown fur collar, a brown hat, a brown veil, and a brownparasol, there was really nothing striking to distinguish her fromother female passengers, except her good looks and her well-set-upfigure. Yet somehow it seems impossible for a successful primadonnaever to escape notice. Instead of one maid, for instance, Cordova hadtwo, and they carried rather worn leathern boxes that were evidentlyheavy jewel-cases, which they clutched with both hands and refused togive up to the stewards. They also had about them the indescribableair of rather aggressive assurance which belongs especially tohighly-paid servants, men and women. Their looks said to every one:'We are the show and you are the public, so don't stand in the way,for if you do the performance cannot go on!' They gave their ordersabout their mistress's things to the chief steward as if he werenothing better than a railway porter or a call-boy at the theatre;and, strange to say, that exalted capitalist obeyed with a docility hewould certainly not have shown to any other passenger less than royal.They knew their way everywhere, they knew exactly what the best ofeverything was, and they made it clear that the great singer wouldhave nothing less than the very, very best. She had the best cabinalready, and she was to have the best seat at table, the best stewardand the best stewardess, and her deck-chair was to be always in thebest place on the upper promenade deck; and there was to be no mistakeabout it; and if anybody questioned the right of Margarita da Cordova,the great lyric soprano, to absolute precedence during the wholevoyage, from start to finish, her two maids would know the reason why,and make the captain and all the ship's company wish they were dead.

  That was their attitude.

  But this was not all. There were the colleagues who came to seeMargaret off and wished that they were going too. In spite of thewindy weather there was Signor Pompeo Stromboli, the tenor, as broadas any two ordinary men, in a fur coat of the most terribly expensivesort, bringing an enormous box of chocolates with his best wishes; andthere was the great German dramatic barytone, Herr Tiefenbach, whosang 'Amfortas' better than any one, and was a true musician as wellas a man of culture, and he brought Margaret a book which he insistedthat she must read on the voyage, called _The Genesis of the ToneEpos_; and there was that excellent and useful little artist, FraeuleinOttilie Braun, who never had an enemy in her life, who was alwaysready to sing any part creditably at a moment's notice if one of theleading artists broke down, and who was altogether one of the best,kindest, and least conceited human beings that ever joined an operacompany. She brought her great colleague a little bunch of violets.

  Least expected of them all, there was Schreiermeyer, with a basketof grape fruit in his tightly-gloved podgy hands; and he was smilingcheerfully, which was an event in itself. They followed Margaret up tothe promenade deck after her maids had gone below, and stood round herin a group, all talking at once in different languages.

  Griggs chanced to be the only other passenger on that part of the deckand he joined the party, for he knew them all. Margaret gave him herhand quietly and nodded to him. Signor Stromboli was effusive in hisgreeting; Herr Tiefenbach gave him a solemn grip; little FraeuleinOttilie smiled pleasantly, and Schreiermeyer put into his hands thebasket he carried, judging that as he could not get anything else outof the literary man he could at least make him carry a parcel.

  'Grape fruit for Cordova,' he observed. 'You can give it to thesteward, and tell him to keep the things in a cool place.'

  Griggs took the basket with a slight smile, but Stromboli snatched itfrom him instantly, and managed at the same time to seize upon thebook Herr Tiefenbach had brought without dropping his own big box ofsweetmeats.

  'I shall give everything to the waiter!' he cried with exuberantenergy as he turned away. 'He shall take care of Cordova with hisconscience! I tell you, I will frighten him!'

  This was possible, and even probable. Margaret looked after the broadfigure.

  'Dear old Stromboli!' she laughed.

  'He has the kindest heart in the world,' said little Fraeulein OttilieBraun.

  'He is no a musician,' observed Herr Tiefenbach; 'but he does not singout of tune.'

  'He is a lunatic,' said Schreiermeyer gravely. 'All tenors arelunatics--except about money,' he added thoughtfully.

  'I think Stromboli is very sensible,' said Margaret, turning toGriggs. 'He brings his little Calabrian wife and her baby out withhim, and they take a small house for the winter and Italian servants,and live just as if they were in their own country and see only theirItalian friends--instead of being utterly wretched in a horriblehotel.'

  'For the modest consideration of a hundred dollars a day,' put inGriggs, who was a poor man.

  'I wish my bills were never more than that!' Margaret laughed.

  'Yes,' said Schreiermeyer, still thoughtful. 'Stromboli understandsmoney. He is a man of business. He makes his wife cook for him.'

  'I often cook for myself,' said Fraeulein Ottilie quite simply. 'If Ihad a husband, I would cook for him too!' She laughed like a child,without the slightest sourness. 'It is easier to cook well than tomarry at all, even badly!'

  'I do not at all agree with you,' answered Herr Tiefenbach severely.'Without flattering myself, I may say that my wife married well; buther potato dumplings are terrifying.'

  'You were never married,
were you?' Margaret asked, turning to Griggswith a smile.

  'No,' he answered. 'Can you make potato dumplings, and are you insearch of a husband?'

  'It is the other way,' said Schreiermeyer, 'for the husbands arealways after her. Talking of marriage, that girl who died the othernight was to have been married to Mr. Van Torp yesterday, and theywere to have sailed with you this morning.'

  'I saw his name on the--' Schreiermeyer began, but he was interruptedby a tremendous blast from the ship's horn, the first warning fornon-passengers to go ashore.

  Before the noise stopped Stromboli appeared again, looking very muchpleased with himself, and twisting up the short black moustache thatwas quite lost on his big face. When he was nearer he desisted fromtwirling, shook a fat forefinger at Margaret and laughed.

  'Oh, well, then,' he cried, translating his Italian literally intoEnglish, 'I've been in your room, Miss Cordova! Who is this Tom, eh?Flowers from Tom, one! Sweets from Tom, two! A telegram from Tom,three! Tom, Tom, Tom; it is full of Tom, her room! In the end, whatis this Tom? For me, I only know Tom the ruffian in the _Ballo inMaschera_. That is all the Tom I know!'

  They all looked at Margaret and laughed. She blushed a little, moreout of annoyance than from any other reason.

  'The maids wished to put me out,' laughed Stromboli, 'but they couldnot, because I am big. So I read everything. If I tell you I read,what harm is there?'

  'None whatever,' Margaret answered, 'except that it is bad manners toopen other people's telegrams.'

  'Oh, that! The maid had opened it with water, and was reading when Icame. So I read too! You shall find it all well sealed again, have nofear! They all do so.'

  'Pleasant journey,' said Schreiermeyer abruptly. 'I'm going ashore.I'll see you in Paris in three weeks.'

  'Read the book,' said Herr Tiefenbach earnestly, as he shook hands.'It is a deep book.'

  'Do not forget me!' cried Stromboli sentimentally, and he kissedMargaret's gloves several times.

  'Good-bye,' said Fraeulein Ottilie. 'Every one is sorry when you go!'

  Margaret was not a gushing person, but she stooped and kissed thecheerful little woman, and pressed her small hand affectionately.

  'And everybody is glad when you come, my dear,' she said.

  For Fraeulein Ottilie was perhaps the only person in the company whomCordova really liked, and who did not jar dreadfully on her at onetime or another.

  Another blast from the horn and they were all gone, leaving her andGriggs standing by the rail on the upper promenade deck. The littleparty gathered again on the pier when they had crossed the plank, andmade farewell signals to the two, and then disappeared. UnconsciouslyMargaret gave a little sigh of relief, and Griggs noticed it, as henoticed most things, but said nothing.

  There was silence for a while, and the gangplank was still in placewhen the horn blew a third time, longer than before.

  'How very odd!' exclaimed Griggs, a moment after the sound had ceased.

  'What is odd?' Margaret asked.

  She saw that he was looking down, and her eyes followed his. Asquare-shouldered man in mourning was walking up the plank in aleisurely way, followed by a well-dressed English valet, who carried adespatch-box in a leathern case.

  'It's not possible!' Margaret whispered in great surprise.

  'Perfectly possible,' Griggs answered, in a low voice. 'That is RufusVan Torp.'

  Margaret drew back from the rail, though the new comer was already outof sight on the lower promenade deck, to which the plank was laid tosuit the height of the tide. She moved away from the door of the firstcabin companion.

  Griggs went with her, supposing that she wished to walk up and down.Numbers of other passengers were strolling about on the side next tothe pier, waiting to see the start. Margaret went on forward, turnedthe deck-house and walked to the rail on the opposite side, wherethere was no one. Griggs glanced at her face and thought that sheseemed disturbed. She looked straight before her at the closed irondoors of the next pier, at which no ship was lying.

  'I wish I knew you better,' she said suddenly.

  Griggs looked at her quietly. It did not occur to him to make atrivial and complimentary answer to this advance, such as most men ofthe world would have made, even at his age.

  'I shall be very glad if we ever know each other better,' he saidafter a short pause.

  'So shall I.'

  She leaned upon the rail and looked down at the eddying water. Thetide had turned and was beginning to go out. Griggs watched herhandsome profile in silence for a time.

  'You have not many intimate friends, have you?' she asked presently.

  'No, only one or two.'

  She smiled.

  'I'm not trying to get confidences from you. But really, that is veryvague. You must surely know whether you have only one, or whetherthere is another. I'm not suggesting myself as a third, either!'

  'Perhaps I'm over-cautious,' Griggs said. 'It does not matter. Youbegan by saying that you wished you knew me better. You meant thatif you did, you would either tell me something which you don't telleverybody, or you would come to me for advice about something, or youwould ask me to do something for you. Is that it?'

  'I suppose so.'

  'It was not very hard to guess. I'll answer the three cases. If youwant to tell me a secret, don't. If you want advice without tellingeverything about the case, it will be worthless. But if there isanything I can do for you, I'll do it if I can, and I won't ask anyquestions.'

  'That's kind and sensible,' Margaret answered. 'And I should not be inthe least afraid to tell you anything. You would not repeat it.'

  'No, certainly not. But some day, unless we became real friends, youwould think that I might, and then you would be very sorry.'

  A short pause followed.

  'We are moving,' Margaret said, glancing at the iron doors again.

  'Yes, we are off.'

  There was another pause. Then Margaret stood upright and turned herface to her companion. She did not remember that she had ever lookedsteadily into his eyes since she had known him.

  They were grey and rather deeply set under grizzled eyebrows thatwere growing thick and rough with advancing years, and they met hersquietly. She knew at once that she could bear their scrutiny for anylength of time without blushing or feeling nervous, though there wassomething in them that was stronger than she.

  'It's this,' she said at last, as if she had been talking and hadreached a conclusion. 'I'm alone, and I'm a little frightened.'

  'You?' Griggs smiled rather incredulously.

  'Yes. Of course I'm used to travelling without any one and taking careof myself. Singers and actresses are just like men in that, and it didnot occur to me this morning that this trip could be different fromany other.'

  'No. Why should it be so different? I don't understand.'

  'You said you would do something for me without asking questions. Willyou?'

  'If I can.'

  'Keep Mr. Van Torp away from me during the voyage. I mean, as muchas you can without being openly rude. Have my chair put next to someother woman's and your own on my other side. Do you mind doing that?'

  Griggs smiled.

  'No,' he said, 'I don't mind.'

  'And if I am walking on deck and he joins me, come and walk beside metoo. Will you? Are you quite sure you don't mind?'

  'Yes.' He was still smiling. 'I'm quite certain that I don't dislikethe idea.'

  'I wish I were sure of being seasick,' Margaret said thoughtfully.'It's bad for the voice, but it would be a great resource.'

  'As a resource, I shall try to be a good substitute for it,' saidGriggs.

  Margaret realised what she had said and laughed.

  'But it is no laughing matter,' she answered, her face growing graveagain after a moment.

  Griggs had promised not to ask questions, and he expressed nocuriosity.

  'As soon as you go below I'll see about the chair,' he said.

  'My cabin is on this deck,' Mar
garet answered. 'I believe I have atiny little sitting-room, too. It's what they call a suite in theirmagnificent language, and the photographs in the advertisements makeit look like a palatial apartment!'

  She left the rail as she spoke, and found her own door on the sameside of the ship, not very far away.

  'Here it is,' she said. 'Thank you very much.'

  She looked into his eyes again for an instant and went in.

  She had forgotten Signor Stromboli and what he had said, for herthoughts had been busy with a graver matter, but she smiled when shesaw the big bunch of dark red carnations in a water-jug on the table,and the little cylinder-shaped parcel which certainly contained adozen little boxes of the chocolate 'oublies' she liked, and thetelegram, with its impersonal-looking address, waiting to be opened byher after having been opened, read, and sealed again by her thoughtfulmaids. Such trifles as the latter circumstance did not disturb her inthe least, for though she was only a young woman of four and twenty,a singer and a musician, she had a philosophical mind, and consideredthat if virtue has nothing to do with the greatness of princes, moralworth need not be a clever lady's-maid's strong point.

  'Tom' was her old friend Edmund Lushington, one of the mostdistinguished of the younger writers of the day. He was the only sonof the celebrated soprano, Madame Bonanni, now retired from the stage,by her marriage with an English gentleman of the name of Goodyear, andhe had been christened Thomas. But his mother had got his name andsurname legally changed when he was a child, thinking that it would bea disadvantage to him to be known as her son, as indeed it might havebeen at first; even now the world did not know the truth about hisbirth, but it would not have cared, since he had won his own way.

  Margaret meant to marry him if she married at all, for he had beenfaithful in his devotion to her nearly three years; and his rivalrywith Constantine Logotheti, her other serious adorer, had brought somecomplications into her life. But on mature reflection she was surethat she did not wish to marry any one for the present. So many ofher fellow-singers had married young and married often, evidentlyfollowing the advice of a great American humorist, and mostly withdisastrous consequences, that Margaret preferred to be an exception,and to marry late if at all.

  In the glaring light of the twentieth century it at last clearlyappears that marriageable young women have always looked upon marriageas the chief means of escape from the abject slavery and humiliatingdependence hitherto imposed upon virgins between fifteen and fiftyyears old. Shakespeare lacked the courage to write the 'Seven Ages ofWoman,' a matter the more to be regretted as no other writer has everpossessed enough command of the English language to describe more thanthree out of the seven without giving offence: namely, youth, whichlasts from sixteen to twenty; perfection, which begins at twenty andlasts till further notice; and old age, which women generally placebeyond seventy, though some, whose strength is not all sorrow andweakness even then, do not reach it till much later. If Shakespearehad dared he would have described with poetic fire the age of the girlwho never marries. But this is a digression. The point is that thetruth about marriage is out, since the modern spinster has shown thesisterhood how to live, and an amazing number of women look uponwedlock as a foolish thing, vainly imagined, never necessary, andrarely amusing.

  The state of perpetual unsanctified virginity, however, is not forpoor girls, nor for operatic singers, nor for kings' daughters, noneof whom, for various reasons, can live, or are allowed to live,without husbands. Unless she be a hunchback, an unmarried royalprincess is almost as great an exception as a white raven or a catwithout a tail; a primadonna without a husband alive, dead, ordivorced, is hardly more common; and poor girls marry to live. Butgive a modern young woman a decent social position, with enough moneyfor her wants and an average dose of assurance, and she becomes sofastidious in the choice of a mate that no man is good enough forher till she is too old to be good enough for any man. Even then thechances are that she will not deeply regret her lost opportunities,and though her married friends will tell her that she has made amistake, half of them will envy her in secret, the other half will notpity her much, and all will ask her to their dinner-parties, because awoman without a husband is such a convenience.

  In respect to her art Margarita da Cordova was in all ways a thoroughartist, endowed with the gifts, animated by the feelings, andafflicted with the failings that usually make up an artistic nature.But Margaret Donne was a sound and healthy English girl who had beenbrought up in the right way by a very refined and cultivated fatherand mother who loved her devotedly. If they had lived she would nothave gone upon the stage; for as her mother's friend Mrs. Rushmore hadoften told her, the mere thought of such a life for their daughterwould have broken their hearts. She was a grown woman now, and highon the wave of increasing success and celebrity, but she still hada childish misgiving that she had disobeyed her parents and donesomething very wrong, just as when she had surreptitiously got intothe jam cupboard at the age of five.

  Yet there are old-fashioned people alive even now who might think thatthere was less harm in becoming a public singer than in keeping EdmundLushington dangling on a string for two years and more. Those thingsare matters of opinion. Margaret would have answered that if hedangled it was his misfortune and not her fault, since she never, inher own opinion, had done anything to keep him, and would not havebeen broken-hearted if he had gone away, though she would have missedhis friendship very much. Of the two, the man who had disturbed hermaiden peace of mind was Logotheti, whom she feared and sometimeshated, but who had an inexplicable power over her when they met: thesort of fateful influence which honest Britons commonly ascribe to allforeigners with black hair, good teeth, diamond studs, and the otheroutward signs of wickedness. Twice, at least, Logotheti had behaved ina manner positively alarming, and on the second occasion he had verynearly succeeded in carrying her off bodily from the theatre tohis yacht, a fate from which Lushington and his mother had beeninstrumental in saving her. Such doings were shockingly lawless, butthey showed a degree of recklessly passionate admiration which wasflattering from a young financier who was so popular with women thathe found it infinitely easier to please than to be pleased.

  Perhaps, if Logotheti could have put on a little Anglo-Saxon coolness,Margaret might have married him by this time. Perhaps she would havemarried Lushington, if he could have suddenly been animated by alittle Greek fire. As things stood, she told herself that she did notcare to take a man who meant to be not only her master but her tyrant,nor one who seemed more inclined to be her slave than her master.

  Meanwhile, however, it was the Englishman who kept himself constantlyin mind with her by an unbroken chain of small attentions that oftenmade her smile but sometimes really touched her. Any one could cable'Pleasant voyage,' and sign the telegram 'Tom,' which gave it afriendly and encouraging look, because somehow 'Tom' is a cheerful,plucky little name, very unlike 'Edmund.' But it was quite anothermatter, being in England, to take the trouble to have carnations ofjust the right shade fresh on her cabin table at the moment of hersailing from New York, and beside them the only sort of chocolates sheliked. That was more than a message, it was a visit, a presence, areal reaching out of hand to hand.

  Logotheti, on the contrary, behaved as if he had forgotten Margaret'sexistence as soon as he was out of her sight; and they now no longermet often, but when they did he had a way of taking up the thread asif there had been no interval, which was almost as effective as hisrival's method; for it produced the impression that he had beenthinking of her only, and of nothing else in the world since the lastmeeting, and could never again give a thought to any other woman. Thisalso was flattering. He never wrote to her, he never telegraphed goodwishes for a journey or a performance, he never sent her so much as aflower; he acted as if he were really trying to forget her, as perhapshe was. But when they met, he was no sooner in the same room with herthan she felt the old disturbing influence she feared and yetsomehow desired in spite of herself, and much as she preferred thecompani
onship of Lushington and liked his loyal straightforward ways,and admired his great talent, she felt that he paled and seemed lessinteresting beside the vivid personality of the Greek financier.

  He was vivid; no other word expresses what he was, and if that onecannot properly be applied to a man, so much the worse for ourlanguage. His colouring was too handsome, his clothes were too good,his shoes were too shiny, his ties too surprising, and he not onlywore diamonds and rubies, but very valuable ones. Yet he was notvulgarly gorgeous; he was Oriental. No one would say that a Chineseidol covered with gold and precious stones was overdressed, but itwould be out of place in a Scotch kirk; the minister would be throwninto the shade and the congregation would look at the idol. Insociety, which nowadays is far from a chiaroscuro, everybody looked atLogotheti. If he had come from any place nearer than Constantinoplepeople would have smiled and perhaps laughed at him; as it was, he wasan exotic, and besides, he had the reputation of being dangerous towomen's peace, and extremely awkward to meddle with in a quarrel.

  Margaret sat some time in her little sitting-room reflecting on thesethings, for she knew that before many days were past she must meether two adorers; and when she had thought enough about both, she gaveorders to her maids about arranging her belongings. By and by she wentto luncheon and found herself alone at some distance from the otherpassengers, next to the captain's empty seat; but she was rather gladthat her neighbours had not come to table, for she got what she wantedvery quickly and had no reason for waiting after she had finished.

  Then she took a book and went on deck again, and Alphonsine found herchair on the sunny side and installed her in it very comfortably andcovered her up, and to her own surprise she felt that she was verysleepy; so that just as she was wondering why, she dozed off and beganto dream that she was Isolde, on board of Tristan's ship, and that shewas singing the part, though she had never sung it and probably neverwould.

  When she opened her eyes again there was no land in sight, and the bigsteamer was going quietly with scarcely any roll. She looked aft andsaw Paul Griggs leaning against the rail, smoking; and she turned herhead the other way, and the chair next to her own on that side wasoccupied by a very pleasant-looking young woman who was sitting upstraight and showing the pictures in a book to a beautiful little girlwho stood beside her.

  The lady had a very quiet healthy face and smooth brown hair, and wassimply and sensibly dressed. Margaret at once decided that she was notthe child's mother, nor an elder sister, but some one who had chargeof her, though not exactly a governess. The child was about nine yearsold; she had a quantity of golden hair that waved naturally, and aspiritual face with deep violet eyes, a broad white forehead and apathetic little mouth.

  She examined each picture, and then looked up quickly at the lady,keeping her wide eyes fixed on the latter's face with an expression ofwatchful interest. The lady explained each picture to her, but in sucha soft whisper that Margaret could not hear a sound. Yet the childevidently understood every word easily. It was natural to suppose thatthe lady spoke under her breath in order not to disturb Margaret whileshe was asleep.

  'It is very kind of you to whisper,' said the Primadonna graciously,'but I am awake now.'

  The lady turned with a pleasant smile.

  'Thank you,' she answered.

  The child did not notice Margaret's little speech, but looked up fromthe book for the explanation of the next picture.

  'It is the inside of the Colosseum in Rome, and you will see itbefore long,' said the lady very distinctly. 'I have told you how thegladiators fought there, and how Saint Ignatius was sent all the wayfrom Antioch to be devoured by lions there, like many other martyrs.'

  The little girl watched her face intently, nodded gravely, and lookeddown at the picture again, but said nothing. The lady turned toMargaret.

  'She was born deaf and dumb,' she said quietly, 'but I have taught herto understand from the lips, and she can already speak quite well. Sheis very clever.'

  'Poor little thing!' Margaret looked at the girl with increasinginterest. 'Such a little beauty, too! What is her name?'


  The child had turned over the pages to another picture, and now lookedup for the explanation of it. Griggs had finished his cigar and cameand sat down on Margaret's other side.