The Theatre

Major Maitland was very fond of the theatre, and as he had grown fond of Zachariah, and frequently called at his house, sometimes on business and sometimes for pleasure, he often asked his friend to accompany him. But for a long time he held out. The theatre and dancing in 1814 were an abomination to the Independents. Since 1814 they have advanced, and consequently they not only go to plays and dance like other Christians, but the freer, less prejudiced, and more enlightened encourage the ballet, spend their holidays in Paris, and study French character there. Zachariah, however, had a side open to literature, and though he had never seen a play acted, he read plays. He read Shakespeare, and had often thought how wonderful one of his dramas must be on the stage. So it fell out that at last he yielded, and it was arranged that Mrs. and Mr. Coleman should go with the Major to Drury Lane to see the great Edmund Kean in “Othello.” The day was fixed, and Mrs. Coleman was busy for a long time beforehand in furbishing up and altering her wedding-dress, so that she might make a decent figure. She was all excitement, and as happy as she could well be. For months Zachariah had not known her to be so communicative. She seemed to take an interest in politics; she discussed with him the report that Bonaparte was mad, and Zachariah, on his part, told her what had happened to him during the day, and what he had read in the newspapers. The Prince Regent had been to Oxford, and verses had been composed in his honour. Mr. Bosanquet had recited to the Prince an ode, or something of the kind, and had ventured, after dilating on the enormous services rendered by kings in general to the community during the last twenty years, to warn them⁠—

“But ye yourselves must bow: your praise be given
To Him, the Lord of lords, your King in heaven.”

And Mrs. Zachariah, with a smile and unwonted wit, wondered whether Mr. Bosanquet would not be prosecuted for such treasonable sentiments. Zachariah hardly knew what to make of his wife’s gaiety, but he was glad. He thought that perhaps he was answerable for her silence and coldness, and he determined at all costs to try and amend, and, however weary he might be when he came home at night, that he would speak and get her to speak too.

The eventful evening arrived. Zachariah was to get away as early as he could; the Major was to call at about six. After Zachariah had washed and dressed, they were to take a hackney coach together. At the appointed hour the Major appeared, and found Mrs. Zachariah already in her best clothes and tea ready. She was charming⁠—finished from the uttermost hair on her head to the sole of her slipper⁠—and the dove-coloured, somewhat Quakerish tint of her wedding-gown suited her admirably. Quarter-past six came, but there was no Zachariah, and she thought she would make the tea, as he was never long over his meals. Half-past six, and he was not there. The two now sat down, and began to listen to every sound. The coach was ordered at a quarter to seven.

“What shall we do?” said the Major. “I cannot send you on and wait for him.”

“No. How vexing it is! It is just like⁠—” and she stopped.

“We must stay where we are, I suppose; it is rather a pity to miss being there when Kean first comes on.”

She was in a fretful agony of impatience. She rose and looked out of the window, thought she heard somebody on the stairs, went outside on the landing, returned, walked up and down, and mentally cursed her husband, not profanely⁠—she dared not do that⁠—but with curses none the less intense. Poor man! he had been kept by a job he had to finish. She might have thought this possible, and, in fact, did think it possible; but it made no difference in the hatred which she permitted to rise against him. At last her animosity relaxed, and she began to regard him with more composure, and even with pleasure.

“Had you not better go and leave me here, so that we may follow? I do not know what has happened, and I am sure he would be so sorry if you were to be disappointed.”

She turned her eyes anxiously towards the Major.

“That will never do. You know nothing about the theatre. No! no!”

She paused and stamped her little foot, and looked again out of the window.

The coachman knocked at the door, and when she went down asked her how long he had to wait.

She came back, and throwing herself on a chair, fairly gave way to her mortification, and cried out, “It is too bad⁠—too bad!⁠—it is, really.”

“I’ll tell you what,” replied the Major. “Do you mind coming with me? We will leave one of the tickets which I have bought, and we can add a message that he is to follow, and that we will keep his place for him. Put on your bonnet at once, and I will scribble a line to him.”

Mrs. Zachariah did not see any other course open; her wrath once more disappeared, and in another moment she was busy before the looking-glass. The note was written, and pinned to the ticket, both being stuck on the mantelpiece in a conspicuous place, so that Zachariah might see them directly he arrived. In exuberant spirits she added in her own hand, “Make as much haste as you can, my dear,” and subscribed her initials. It was a tremendously hot afternoon and, what with the fire and the weather and the tea, the air was very oppressive. She threw the bottom sash open a little wider therefore, and the two rolled off to Drury Lane. As the door slammed behind them, the draught caught the ticket and note, and in a moment they were in the flames and consumed.

Ten minutes afterwards in came Zachariah. He had run all the way, and was dripping with perspiration. He rushed upstairs, but there was nobody. He stared round him, looked at the plates, saw that two had been there, rushed down again, and asked the woman in the shop:

“Has Mrs. Coleman left any message?”

“No. She went off with that gentleman that comes here now and then; but she never said nothing to me,” and Zachariah thought he saw something like a grin on her face.

It may be as well to say that he never dreamed of any real injury done to him by his wife, and, in truth, the Major was incapable of doing him any. He was gay, unorthodox, a man who went about in the world, romantic, republican, but he never would have condescended to seduce a woman, and least of all a woman belonging to a friend. He paid women whom he admired all kinds of attentions, but they were nothing more than the gallantry of the age. Although they were nothing, however, to him, they were a good deal more than nothing to Mrs. Zachariah. The symbolism of an act varies much, and what may be mere sport to one is sin in another. The Major’s easy manners and very free courtesy were innocent so far as he was concerned; but when his rigid, religious companion in the hackney coach felt them sweet, and was better pleased with them than she had ever been with her husband’s caresses, she sinned, and she knew that she sinned.

What curiously composite creatures we are! Zachariah for a moment was half pleased, for she had now clearly wronged him. The next moment, however, he was wretched. He took up the teapot; it was empty; the tea-caddy was locked up. It was a mere trifle, but, as he said to himself, the merest trifles are important if they are significant. He brooded, therefore, over the empty teapot and locked tea-caddy for fully five minutes. She had not only gone without him, but had forgotten him. At the end of the five minutes teapot and tea-caddy had swollen to enormous dimensions and had become the basis of large generalisations. “I would rather,” he exclaimed, “be condemned to be led out and hung if I knew one human soul would love me for a week beforehand and honour me afterwards, than live half a century and be nothing to any living creature.” Presently, however, it occurred to him that, although in the abstract this might be true yet at that particular moment he was a fool; and he made the best of his way to Drury Lane. He managed to find his way into the gallery just as Kean came on the stage in the second scene of the first act. Far down below him, through the misty air, he thought he could see his wife and the Major; but he was in an instant arrested by the play. It was all new to him; the huge building, the thousands of excited, eager faces, the lights, and the scenery. He had not listened, moreover, to a dozen sentences from the great actor before he had forgotten himself and was in Venice, absorbed in the fortunes of the Moor. What a blessing is this for which we have to thank the playwright and his interpreters, to be able to step out of the dingy, dreary London streets, with all their wretched corrosive cares, and at least for three hours to be swayed by nobler passions. For three hours the little petty self, with all its mean surroundings, withdraws: we breathe a different atmosphere, we are jealous, glad, weep, laugh with Shakespeare’s jealousy, gladness, tears, and laughter! What priggishness, too, is that which objects to Shakespeare on a stage because no acting can realise the ideal formed by solitary reading! Are we really sure of it? Are we really sure that Garrick or Kean or Siddons, with all their genius and study, fall short of a lazy dream in an armchair! Kean had not only a thousand things to tell Zachariah⁠—meanings in innumerable passages which had before been overlooked⁠—but he gave the character of Othello such vivid distinctness that it might almost be called a creation. He was exactly the kind of actor, moreover, to impress him. He was great, grand, passionate, overwhelming with a like emotion the apprentice and the critic. Everybody after listening to a play or reading a book uses it when he comes to himself again to fill his own pitcher, and the Cyprus tragedy lent itself to Zachariah as an illustration of his own Clerkenwell sorrows and as a gospel for them, although his were so different from those of the Moor. Why did he so easily suspect Desdemona? Is it not improbable that a man with any faith in woman, and such a woman, should proceed to murder on such evidence? If Othello had reflected for a moment, he would have seen that everything might have been explained. Why did he not question, sift, examine, before taking such tremendous revenge?⁠—and for the moment the story seemed unnatural. But then he considered again that men and women, if they do not murder one another, do actually, in everyday life, for no reason whatever, come to wrong conclusions about each other; utterly and to the end of their lines misconstrue and lose each other. Nay, it seems to be a kind of luxury to them to believe that those who could and would love them are false to them. We make haste to doubt the divinest fidelity; we drive the dagger into each other, and we smother the Desdemona who would have been the light of life to us, not because of any deadly difference or grievous injury, but because we idly and wilfully reject.

The tale, evermore is⁠—

“Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.”

So said Zachariah to himself as he came out into Drury Lane and walked eastwards. His wife and the Major were back before him. The Major did not wait but returned at once to Albany Street, leaving Mrs. Coleman to sit up for her husband. He was not hurrying himself, and could not free himself from the crowd so easily as those who left from below. The consequence was that he was a full half-hour behind her, and she was not particularly pleased at having been kept so long out of her bed. When she let him in all that she said was, “Oh, here you are at last,” and immediately retired. Strange to say, she forgot all about family worship⁠—never before omitted, however late it might be. If she had taken the trouble to ask him whether he had seen her message and the ticket so much might have been cleared up. Of course he, too, ought to have spoken to her; it was the natural thing to do, and it was extraordinary that he did not. But he let her go; she knelt down by her bed, prayed her prayer to her God, and in five minutes was asleep. Zachariah ten minutes afterwards prayed his prayer to his God, and lay down, but not to sleep. No sooner was his head on his pillow than the play was before his eyes, and Othello, Desdemona, and Iago moved and spoke again for hours. Then came the thoughts with which he had left the theatre and the revulsion on reaching home. Burning with excitement at what was a discovery to him, he had entered his house with even an enthusiasm for his wife, and an impatient desire to try upon her the experiment which he thought would reveal so much to him and make him wealthy forever. But when she met him he was struck dumb. He was shut up again in his old prison, and what was so hopeful three hours before was all vanity. So he struggled through the short night, and, as soon as he could, rose and went out. This was a frequent practice, and his wife was not surprised when she woke to find he had gone. She was in the best of spirits again, and when he returned, after offering him the usual morning greeting, she inquired at once in what part of the theatre he was, and why he had not used the ticket.

“We waited for you till the last moment; we should have been too late if we had stayed an instant longer, and I made sure you would come directly.”

“Ticket⁠—what ticket? I saw no ticket?”

“We left it on the mantelpiece, and there was a message with it.”

His face brightened, but he said nothing. A rush of blood rose to his head; he moved towards her and kissed her.

“What a wretch you must have thought me!” she said half laughingly, as she instantly smoothed her hair again, which he had ruffled. “But what has become of the ticket?”

“Fell in the fire most likely; the window was open when I came in, and the draught blew the picture over the mantelpiece nearly off its hook.”

The breakfast was the happiest meal they had had for months. Zachariah did his best to overcome his natural indisposition to talk. Except when he was very much excited, he always found conversation with his wife too difficult on any save the most commonplace topics, although he was eloquent enough in company which suited him. She listened to him, recalling with great pleasure the events of the preceding evening. She was even affectionate⁠—affectionate for her⁠—and playfully patted his shoulder as he went out, warning him not to be so late again. What was the cause of her gaiety? Was she thinking improperly of the Major? No. If she had gone with Zachariah alone to the theatre would she have been so cheerful? No. Did she really think she loved her husband better? Yes. The human heart, even the heart of Mrs. Coleman, is beyond our analysis.