Polonius. The actors are come hither, my lord.

Hamlet. Buz, buz.

Polonius. Upon my honour.

Hamlet. Then came each actor on his ass.

Polonious. The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited... these are the only men.

Being thus benetted round with villanies,—

Or I could make a prologue to my brains,

They had begun the play,—I sat me down.

... Wilt thou know

The effect...?—Hamlet.

UPON the evening of the Thursday week after the arrival of that steamer with two companies of the Bayonetteers at Durban, the town of Pietermaritzburg was convulsed with the prospect of the entertainment that was to take place in its midst, for Miss Lottie Vincent had not passed the preceding week in a condition of dramatic abstraction. She was by no means so wrapped up in the part she had undertaken to represent as to be unable to give the necessary attention to the securing of an audience.

It would seem to a casual entrepreneur visiting Pietermaritzburg that a large audience might be assured for an entertainment possessing even the minimum of attractiveness, for the town appears to be of an immense size—that is, for a South African town. The colonial Romulus and Remus have shown at all times very lordly notions on the subject of boundaries, and, being subject to none of those restrictions as to the cost of every square foot of territory which have such a cramping influence upon the founders of municipalities at home, they exercise their grand ideas in the most extensive way. The streets of an early colonial town are broad roads, and the spaces between the houses are so great as almost to justify the criticism of those narrow-minded visitors who call the town straggling. At one time Pietermaritzburg may have been straggling, but it certainly did not strike Oswin Markham as being so when he saw it now for the first time on his arrival. He felt that it had got less of a Dutch look about it than Cape Town, and though that towering and overshadowing impression which Table Mountain gives to Cape Town was absent, yet the circle of hills about Pietermaritzburg seemed to him—and his fancy was not particularly original—to give the town almost that nestling appearance which by tradition is the natural characteristic of an English village.

But if an entrepreneur should calculate the probable numerical value of an audience in Pietermaritzburg from a casual walk through the streets, he would find that his assumption had been founded upon an erroneous basis. The streets are long and in fact noble, but the inhabitants available for fulfilling the duties of an audience at a dramatic entertainment are out of all proportion few. Two difficulties are to be contended with in making up audiences in South Africa: the first is getting the people in, and the second is keeping people out. As a rule the races of different colour do not amalgamate with sufficient ease to allow of a mixed audience being pervaded with a common sympathy. A white man seated between a Hottentot and a Kafir will scarcely be brought to admit that he has had a pleasant evening, even though the performance on the stage is of a choice character. A single Zulu will make his presence easily perceptible in a room full of white people, even though he should remain silent and in a secluded corner; while a Hottentot, a Kafir, and a Zulu constitute a bouquet d'Afrique, the savour of which is apt to divert the attention of any one in their neighbourhood from the realistic effect of a garden scene upon the stage.

Miss Lottie, being well aware that the audience-forming material in the town was small in proportion to the extent of the streets, set herself with her usual animation about the task of disposing of the remaining tickets. She fancied that she understood something of the system to be pursued with success amongst the burghers. She felt it to be her duty to pay a round of visits to the houses where she had been intimate in the days of her previous residence at the garrison; and she contrived to impress upon her friends that the ties of old acquaintance should be consolidated by the purchase of a number of her tickets. She visited several families who, she knew, had been endeavouring for a long time to work themselves into the military section of the town's society, and after hinting to them that the officers of the Bayonetteers would remain in the lowest spirits until they had made the acquaintance of the individual members of each of those families, she invariably disposed of a ticket to the individual member whose friendship was so longed for at the garrison. As for the tradesmen of the town, she managed without any difficulty, or even without forgetting her own standing, to make them aware of the possible benefits that would accrue to the business of the town under the patronage of the officers of the Bayonetteers; and so, instead of having to beg of the tradesmen to support the deserving charity on account of which she was taking such a large amount of trouble, she found herself thanked for the permission she generously accorded to these worthy men to purchase places for the evening.

She certainly deserved well of the deserving charity, and the old field-officers, who rolled their eyes and pulled their moustaches, recollecting the former labours of Miss Lottie, had got as imperfect a knowledge of the proportions of her toil and reward as the less good-natured of their wives who alluded to the trouble she was taking as if it was not wholly disinterested. Lottie certainly took a vast amount of trouble, and if Oswin Markham only appeared at the beginning of each rehearsal and left at the conclusion, the success of the performance was not at all jeopardised by his action.

For the entire week preceding the evening of the performance little else was talked about in all sections of Maritzburgian society but the prospects of its success. The ladies in the garrison were beginning to be wearied of the topic of theatricals, and the colonel of the Bayonetteers was heard to declare that he would not submit any longer to have the regimental parades only half-officered day by day, and that the plea of dramatic study would be insufficient in future to excuse an absentee. But this vigorous action was probably accelerated by the report that reached him of a certain lieutenant, who had only four lines to speak in the play, having escaped duty for the entire week on the grounds of the necessity for dramatic study.

At last the final nail was put in the fastenings of the scenery on the stage, which a number of the Royal Engineers, under the guidance of two officers and a clerk of the works, had erected; the footlights were after considerable difficulty coaxed into flame. The officers of the garrison and their wives made an exceedingly good front row in the stalls, and a number of the sergeants and privates filled up the back seats, ready to applaud, without reference to their merits at the performance, their favourite officers when they should appear on the stage; the intervening seats were supposed to be booked by the general audience, and their punctuality of attendance proved that Lottie's labours had not been in vain.

Mr. Harwood having tired of Durban, had been some days in the town, and he walked from the hotel with Markham; for Mr. Markham, though the part he was to play was one of most importance in the drama, did not think it necessary to hang about the stage for the three hours preceding the lifting of the curtain, as most of the Bayonetteers who were to act believed to be prudent. Harwood took a seat in the second row of stalls, for he had promised Lottie and one of the other young ladies who was in the cast, to give each of them a candid opinion upon their representations. For his own part he would have preferred giving his opinion before seeing the representations, for he knew what a strain would be put upon his candour after they were over.

When the orchestra—which was a great feature of the performance—struck up an overture, the stage behind the curtain was crowded with figures in top-boots and with noble hats encircled with ostrich feathers—the element of brigandage entering largely into the construction of the drama of the evening. Each of the figures carried a small pamphlet which he studied every now and again, for in spite of the many missed parades, a good deal of uncertainty as to the text of their parts pervaded the minds of the histrionic Bayonetteers. Before the last notes of the overture had crashed, Lottie Vincent, radiant in pearl powder and pencilled eyebrows, wearing a plain muslin dress and white satin shoes, her fair hair with a lovely white rose shining amongst its folds, tripped out. Her character in the first act being that of a simple village maiden, she was dressed with becoming consistency, every detail down to those white satin shoes being, of course, in keeping with the ordinary attire of simple village maidens wherever civilisation has spread.

“For goodness' sake leave aside your books,” she said to the young men as she came forward. “Do you mean to bring them out with you and read from them? Surely after ten rehearsals you might be perfect.”

“Hang me, if I haven't a great mind not to appear at all in this rot,” said one of the gentlemen in the top-boots to his companions. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror a minute previously and he did not like the picture. “If it was not for the sake of the people who have come I'd cut the whole affair.”

“She has done nothing but bully,” remarked a second of these desperadoes in top-boots.

“All because that fellow Markham has shown himself to be no idiot,” said a third.

“Count Rodolph loves her, but I'll spare him not: he dies to-night,” remarked another, but he was only refreshing his memory on the dialogue he was to speak.

When the gentleman who was acting as prompter saw that the stage was cleared, he gave the signal for the orchestra to play the curtain up. At the correct moment, and with a perfection of stage management that would have been creditable to any dramatic establishment in the world, as one of the Natal newspapers a few days afterwards remarked with great justice, the curtain was raised, and an excellent village scene was disclosed to the enthusiastic audience. Two of the personages came on at once, and so soon as their identity was clearly established, the soldiers began to applaud, which was doubtless very gratifying to the two officers, from a regimental standpoint, though it somewhat interfered with the progress of the scene. The prompter, however, hastened to the aid of the young men who had lost themselves in that whirlwind of applause, and the dialogue began to run easily.

Lottie had made for herself a little loophole in the back drop-scene through which she observed the audience. She saw that the place was crowded to the doors—English-speaking and Dutch-speaking burghers were in the central seats; she smiled as she noticed the aspirants to garrison intimacies crowding up as close as possible to the officers' wives in the front row, and she wondered if it would be necessary to acknowledge any of them for longer than a week. Then she saw Harwood with the faintest smile imaginable upon his face, as the young men on the stage repeated the words of their parts without being guilty either of the smallest mistake or the least dramatic spirit; and this time she wondered if, when she would be going through her part and she would look towards Harwood, she should find the same sort of smile upon his face. She rather thought not. Then, as the time for her call approached, she hastened round to her entrance, waiting until the poor stuff the two young men were speaking came to an end; then, not a second past her time, she entered, demure and ingenuous as all village maidens in satin slippers must surely be.

She was not disappointed in her reception by the audience. The ladies in the front stalls who had spoken, it might be, unkindly of her in private, now showed their good nature in public, and the field officers forgot all the irregularities she had caused in the regiment and welcomed her heartily; while the tradesmen in the middle rows made their applause a matter of business. The village maiden with the satin shoes smiled in the timid, fluttered, dovelike way that is common amongst the class, and then went on with her dialogue. She felt altogether happy, for she knew that the young lady who was to appear in the second scene could not possibly meet with such an expression of good feeling as she had obtained from the audience.

And now the play might be said to have commenced in earnest. It was by no means a piece of French frivolity, this drama, but a genuine work of English art as it existed thirty years ago, and it was thus certain to commend itself to the Pietermaritzburghers who liked solidity even when it verged upon stolidity.

Throne or Spouse was the title of the play, and if its incidents were somewhat improbable and its details utterly impossible, it was not the less agreeable to the audience. The two young men who had appeared in top-boots on the village green had informed each other, the audience happily overhearing, that they had been out hunting with a certain Prince, and that they had got separated from their companions.

They embraced the moment as opportune for the discussion of a few court affairs, such as the illness ot the monarch, and the Prince's prospects of becoming his successor, and then they thought it would be as well to try and find their way back to the court; so off they went. Then Miss Vincent came on the village green and reminded herself that her name was Marie and that she was a simple village maiden; she also recalled the fact that she lived alone with her mother in Yonder Cottage. It seemed to give her considerable satisfaction to reflect that, though poor, she was, and she took it upon her to say that her mother was also, strictly virtuous, and she wished to state in the most emphatic terms that though she was wooed by a certain Count Rodolph, yet, as she did not love him, she would never be his. Lottie was indeed very emphatic at this part, and her audience applauded her determination as Marie. Curiously enough, she had no sooner expressed herself in this fashion than one of the Bayonetteers entered, and at the sight of him Lottie called out, “Ah, he is here! Count Rodolph!” This the audience felt was a piece of subtle constructive art on the part of the author. Then the new actor replied, “Yes, Count Rodolph is here, sweet Marie, where he would ever be, by the side of the fairest village maiden,” etc.

The new actor was attired in one of the broad hats of the period—whatever it may have been—with a long ostrich feather. He had an immense black moustache, and his eyebrows were exceedingly heavy. He also wore top-boots, a long sword, and a black cloak, one fold of which he now and again threw over his left shoulder when it worked its way down his arm. It was not surprising that further on in the drama the Count was found to be a dissembler; his costume fostered any proclivities in this way that might otherwise have remained dormant.

The village maiden begged to know why the Count persecuted her with his attentions, and he replied that he did so on account of his love for her. She then assured him that she could never bring herself to look on him with favour; and this naturally drew from him the energetic declaration of his own passion for her. He concluded by asking her to be his: she cried with emphasis, “Never!” He repeated his application, and again she cried “Never!” and told him to begone. “You shall be mine,” he cried, catching her by the arm. “Wretch, leave me,” she said, in all her village-maiden dignity; he repeated his assertion, and clasped her round the waist with ardour. Then she shrieked for help, and a few simple villagers rushed hurriedly on the stage, but the Count drew his sword and threatened with destruction any one who might advance. The simple villagers thought it prudent to retire. “Ha! now, proud Marie, you are in my power,” said the Count. “Is there no one to save me?” shrieked Marie. “Yes, here is some one who will save you or perish in the attempt,” came a voice from the wings, and with an agitation pervading the sympathetic orchestra, a respectable young man in a green hunting-suit with a horn by his side and a drawn sword in his hand, rushed on, and was received with an outburst of applause from the audience who, in Pietermaritzburg, as in every place else, are ever on the side of virtue. This new actor was Oswin Markham, and it seemed that Lottie's stories regarding the romance associated with his appearance were successful, for not only was there much applause, but a quiet hum of remark was heard amongst the front stalls, and it was some moments before the business of the stage could be proceeded with.

So soon as he was able to speak, the Count wished to know who was the intruder that dared to face one of the nobles of the land, and the intruder replied in general terms, dwelling particularly upon the fact that only those were noble who behaved nobly. He expressed an inclination to fight with the Count, but the latter declined to gratify him on account of the difference there was between their social standing, and he left the stage saying, “Farewell, proud beauty, we shall meet again.” Then he turned to the stranger, and, laying his hand on his sword-hilt after he had thrown his cloak over his shoulder, he cried, “We too shall meet again.”

The stranger then made some remarks to himself regarding the manner in which he was stirred by Marie's beauty. He asked her who she was, and she replied, truthfully enough, that she was a simple village maiden, and that she lived in Yonder Cottage. He then told her that he was a member of the Prince's retinue, and that he had lost his way at the hunt; and he begged the girl to conduct him to Yonder Cottage. The girl expressed her pleasure at being able to show him some little attention, but she remarked that the stranger would find Yonder Cottage very humble. She assured him, however, of the virtue of herself, and again went so far as to speak for her mother. The stranger then made a nice little speech about the constituents of true nobility, and went out with Marie as the curtain fell.

The next scene was laid in Yonder Cottage; the virtuous mother being discovered knitting, and whiling away the time by talking to herself of the days when she was nurse to the late Queen. Then Marie and the stranger entered, and there was a pleasant family party in Yonder Cottage. The stranger was evidently struck with Marie, and the scene ended by his swearing to make her his wife. The next act showed the stranger in his true character as the Prince; his royal father has heard of his attachment to Marie, and not being an enthusiast on the subject of simple village maidens becoming allied to the royal house, he threatens to cut off the entail of the kingdom—which it appeared he had power to do—if the Prince does not relinquish Marie, and he dies leaving a clause in his will to this effect.

The Prince rushes to Yonder Cottage—hears that Marie is carried off by the Count—rescues her—marries her—and then the virtuous mother confesses that the Prince is her own child, and Marie is the heiress to the throne. No one appeared to dispute the story—Marie is consequently Queen and her husband King, having through his proper treatment of the girl gained the kingdom; and the curtain falls on general happiness, Count Rodolph having committed suicide.

“Nothing could have been more successful,” said Lottie, all tremulous with excitement, to Oswin, as they went off together amid a tumult of applause, which was very sweet to her ears.

“I think it went off very well indeed,” said Oswin. “Your acting was perfection, Miss Vincent.”

“Call me Marie,” she said playfully. “But we must really go before the curtain; hear how they are applauding.”

“I think we have had enough of it,” said Oswin.

“Come along,” she cried; “I dislike it above all things, but there is nothing for it.”

The call for Lottie and Oswin was determined, so after the soldiers had called out their favourite officers, Oswin brought the girl forward, and the enthusiasm was very great. Lottie then went off, and for a few moments Markham remained alone upon the stage. He was most heartily applauded, and, after acknowledging the compliment, he was just stepping back, when from the centre of the seats a man's voice came, loud and clear:

“Bravo, old boy! you're a trump wherever you turn up.”

There was a general moving of heads, and some laughter in the front rows.

But Oswin Markham looked from where he was standing on the stage down to the place whence that voice seemed to come. He neither laughed nor smiled, only stepped back behind the curtain.

The stage was now crowded with the actors and their friends; everybody was congratulating everybody else. Lottie was in the highest spirits.

“Could anything have been more successful?” she cried again to Oswin Markham. He looked at her without answering for some moments. “I don't know,” he said at last. “Successful? perhaps so.”

“What on earth do you mean?” she asked; “are you afraid of the Natal critics?”

“No, I can't say I am.”

“Of what then?”

“There is a person at the door who wishes to speak to you, Mr. Markham,” said one of the servants coming up to Oswin. “He says he doesn't carry cards, but you will see his name here,” and he handed Oswin an envelope.

Oswin Markham read the name on the envelope and crushed it into his pocket, saying to the servant:

“Show the—gentleman up to the room where I dressed.”

So Miss Lottie did not become aware of the origin of Mr. Markham's doubt as to the success of the great drama Throne or Spouse.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook