THE man had a white face and a rather serious, pained expression between the eyes. He sat alone in the dress circle, looking over the audience with his opera glasses. He came almost every night to the theatre, and he was always alone. Sometimes he left at the close of the first act, even when the play was particularly good, and when he remained he appeared to be more interested in the audience than the play. That night he was watching a woman sitting on the other side of the house. The curtains rose and the play began, but still he kept his eyes fixed upon the woman and the man beside her. There was no particular mystery about his watching her, that was all he came there for, to see another man do what he had failed to do to see a girl come into the glory of her womanhood. He had seen it all there, in the and that laughter and gaslight, he had seen it come to pass night by night, and he rejoiced and gloried that there should be such a perfect woman in the world. That night it seemed to him that the smile on her face was more uncertain and nervous than usual; that the light in her eyes was brighter and that the hand with which she held her glass trembled. The passionate tones of the great actress on the stage fell lightly upon his ear, for he saw two other people who were not watching the play very intently. It seemed to him then that she grew more and more beautiful and radiant with every rise of the white lace on her breast. At the end of the third act she and the man beside her rose and went out because the thousand other men and women were de trop. The lonely man on the left, in the dim light that was made for the heroine to die in, leaned his head on the rest in front of him and wondered why he had been created.
IT was afterward—there is always an afterward. She and her husband sat in a box watching the great actress in the same play they had seen ten years ago. It did not require a great reader of character to tell that they were bored. He sat breathing heavily, his arms folded across his very expansive chest. Between the acts he went out, and during the acts he went to sleep. She held a fan in her long, lean fingers, on which the diamonds glittered. Her cheeks were sallow and sunken, and in spite of its very delicate application, the powder, which is a woman's last despairing resort, showed on them. She sat slowly fanning herself and listened to the play. She thought how terribly the actress had aged in ten years, and how her voice had cracked. It almost seemed as though she played a different version of the play, and she had a harsh stagy ring in her voice sounded as if she were laughing at the pretty, sentimental lies she was telling. She thought, too, that Mrs. Fitz Smith's bonnet was very becoming, and wondered if hers were half so much so. She wondered if she could coax her husband to let their little girl take music lessons of as fashionable a teacher as Mrs. Fitz Patrick, and she yearned to know if the cook had remembered to tell the butcher to bring mutton chops for breakfast. She and her husband did not speak to each other at all, but each sat stiff and still, staring at the stage. The lonely man down in the dress circle is still alone, and as he looks at them he smiles and thinks that after all, Providence knows what is best for a man, and that on the whole the gods have been very good to him.
MAHOON was standing in front of a bar talking, that was his favorite occupation. He could talk well, too, on almost any subject. He had read a great deal and he knew most of the poetry in the world by heart. He would talk at any time provided that he had whisky enough on to make it necessary to lean against the counter for support. He would talk with anybody who would give him the required amount of whisky. Mahoon had no visible means of living, he had no occupation except the rather unprofitable ones of drinking and talking. He lay around the town existing in some way, always keeping moderately full. Whenever one of the boys was bored and wanted to be amused he would take Mahoon to a saloon and fill him up and hear him talk. They general got him to talk politics first, and he was as happily versatile in his politics as in other things. He would avow and defend whatever political faith his patron desired. Tonight he was treated by a howling independent, and he was talking the rankest anarchy. He talked wonderfully, too, not with logic or reason but with eloquence and poesy. His black eyes sparkled and he brushed his long black hair back from from his head with a hurried impetuous gesture as he spoke. After he had discoursed sufficiently upon capitalists and monopolists, made all the good figures and climaxes he could think of just then, and felt the glowing fever of eloquence in his veins, he began to recite Shelley's "Masque of Anarchy." He spoke with wonderful power. He was never prosaically drunk. Alcohol always made a poet and an artist of him. He used to say it was by killing and crucifying his body he set his soul free. By the time he had finished the "Masque of Anarcly" the first stinging effects of the liquor had worn off, and he grew dreamy and drowsy, and presently sank down on a bench to sleep, murmuring softly as he embraced a demijohn with infinite tenderness;"Pauline, mine own, bend o'er me. Thy soft breast Shall pant to mine, bend o'er me, thy sweet eyes And loosened hair and breathing lips and arms Drawing me to thee, these build up a screen To shut me in with thee, and from all fear. And now, my Pauline, I am thine forever, I feel the spirit which has buoyed me up Deserting me and old shades gathering on."
THE editor was told that a lady would like to see him, and he told the boy to show the lady up. The editor had a curiosity to see this young lady, for he had known her work for a long time. He had published the first story she had ever sent him, and since then her work had come to him every week as regularly as the weeks came around. He had learned to depend upon her, for her work was always good and to be depended on. She wrote stories mostly, delicate stories of love and tenderness and wonderfully sweet stories of children. The editor knew she must be very young and lovely and also very much in love, nothing else he thought could give such peculiar sweetness and cnosecration to her work. The door opened and he stepped forward to meet her. Sha was a tall angular woman who must have been every day of forty. Her complexion was bad, her teeth were bad, her lips were thin and colorless, and her hair was coarse and red. As the editor stood looking over their aged "Miss" who wrote stories of love and motherhood, it came over him why her work was so wondrous good.
CHARLEY CHERRING was dead. He was lying as we all will lie some day, straight and stiff with a white sheet stretched over him. Beside him two of hi friends sat watching and mourning as one day our friends will one day watch and mourn. It was Charley's last and best appearance. He was a little man, but he looked quite tall on the stretcher, and his undertaker had brushed his hair and shaved his set jaws and forced his clothes on his stiffened limbs, and he looked like the gentleman of the world that he was. Even the ugliest of us have the consolation that we will look quite respectable after we are dead. Charley's brother was leaning back in his chair snoring comfortably. Charley's business partner sat beside him reading Zola's last novel. Presently he laid the book down with a yawn and began to walk the floor to keep himself awake. He lit a cigar and went over and unpinned the sheet stretched over Charley, and it sunk down with a little sighing sound that made him shiver. He took the white bandages off of Charley's face and wet them in some colorless fluid and placed them back and went across the room and carefully washed his hands and after he wiped them he sprayed them with Charley's best violet water. He tried to waken Charley's brother for company, but Charley's brother would not waken. He began pacing the floor again yawning and rubbing his eyes. He felt that being Charley's oldest and dearest friend, and his partner for years he ought to think about him, so he began to think. He thought it was a great pity Charley was dead, they would miss him very much in the whist club, and where would they find such a billiard player again. He wondered why it was that Charley had never done anything greater than be a moderately good lawyer, they had thought him very promising when he was a young man. He speculated as to the amount of Charley's property and as to how his children would squander it and as to whether his widow would marry again. He wondered if Charley had burned all his letters and decided to give the other lawyers a wink lest the dead man's wife should come across some of them and make a scene. He wondered if he Charley had wanted to see the other women very much when he was dying, it seemed rather hard luck that he should have all the people he did not want about him and should be forbidden by the unwritten law to see the only person on earth he cared for. Poor Charley, it must have been hard to stand the weeping and caresses of that big woman in black whom the world knew as Mrs. Charley. Charley's partner sighed and shook his head and thrust his hand in his pockets. He would undertake to fix matters if he could and save Charley's name. He was sorry for Charley and he sat down and read "Les Betes Humain" appreciatively until the maid came in and announced that lunch was served for the watchers. Then Charley's brother at once awoke and went into the dining room and drank four bottles of the wine Charley had been carefully saving for twenty years.
HE was evidently from a richer and more fashionable city than this. He was faultlessly attired, his hair was parted smoothly in the middle and a large diamond glittered on his white shirt front. He was perhaps thirteen, certainly not more, and he was with a young lady old enough to be his mother, whom he systematically persecuted by tactics that would have been tiresome in a man, but were almost pathetic in him, though he by no means meant them to be. He sat toying with his watch charm criticizing the great actress and the wicked French play she played. He spoke and read French readily himself, he had been in Paris several winters. He had seen Bernhardt play the same play there; she was a great artist, much greater than this one. What came on in the next act? He was not sure, it was years ago that he saw Bernhardt and he had not read the book recently. He hoped there would be no hair-tearing emotions in it at any rate, emotions bored him. Just then the curtain raised and the girl gave a long sigh of relief and her escort crossed his dainty little hands in his lap after a glance at the stage through his gold opera glaces. He is a very fortunate young man, he is the scion of a great home and he has inherited money and name and intellect and everything—but youth.
EVERY actor has his forte. Mr. O'Neill's is his diamonds, Mr. Russell's is his sublime ugliness' Mr. Keene's is the strength of his voice, but Mr. Downing's is in his neck. Mr. Downing is a conscientious actor and he believes in giving the public their money's worth, and as he has very little else to give them, he gives with royal bounty the beauty of his physique. No actress, however aspiring, has ever dared to be quite so liberal with her neck as Mr. Downing. He makes it the chief attraction of both his show bills and his acting. The reason he never plays anything but classic roles is very obvious, for only in classic days did men wear decollete robes. There is a great field for artistic and scientific study in Mr. Downing's neck; it is fair and comely and there is a great deal of it, but Mr. Downing grows visibly with age, and he should remember that however much his swanlike throat may have delighted us twelve years ago, today it has become decidedly fleshy and a little stale, like many other similar charms on the road.
Passionate tones of the great actress: possibly a reference to Clara Morris in Camille, which Cather had recently seen (see review of 23 November 1893).
de trop: French, unnecessary or in the way.
Mrs. Fitz Smith . . . Mrs. FitzPatrick: Probably fictional names (the Lincoln city directories for the early 1890s do not list these names) and characters. The patronymic "Fitz" (son of) may have been meant to suggest more aristocratic Irish characters than the more stereotypical Irish names that begin with the "O'" prefix.
Mahoon: The name signals Cather's use of the stereotype of the poetical drunken Irishman.
Independent . . . rankest anarchy: The domination of the two major parties was challenged in the 1880s and early 1890s by the rise of other parties, the strongest and best known of which was the Populist Party. The established parties saw all of these as threats to the social order, and blamed much social unrest on anarchists—broadly defined as almost all the challenging parties.
capitalists and monopolists: A concentration of wealth in the hands of bankers and the consolidation of businesses such as railroads to twine manufacturers took place in the last third of the 19th century. Farmers and laborers felt powerless: they saw bankers controlling the money supply and railroads and manufacturers raising the prices they had to pay for goods and services while it seemed that the prices and wages they were paid were forced down.
Shelley: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), English Romantic poet, showed his disposition to rebel against established customs and beliefs while still young: he was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet, "The Necessity of Atheism." In 1813 Shelley brought out his first volume of poetry, Queen Mab. The following year he fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and eloped with her (accompanied by her stepsister, Claire Clairmont). Much of the remainder of Shelley's short life was spent abroad, especially in Italy, sometimes in the company of Byron. Promethus Unbound (1819) shows Shelley's revolutionary, idealistic, and visionary spirit. He died while sailing in a sudden storm; when his body was recovered, it was burned on the beach in an ancient Greek tradition.
Masque of Anarchy: Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "The Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester" in 1819 as a response to the Peterloo Massacre in August of the same year. The poem consists of 91 stanzas, concluding as follows: Rise like Lions after slumberIn unvanquishable number —Shake your chains to earth like dewWhich in sleep had fallen on you —Ye are many—they are few. (366-71)
Charley Cherring: Most likely a fictional name (the Lincoln city directories contain no one of that name) and character.
Two of his friends sat watching and mourning: The ironies of this vignette anticipate some of those of Cather's early story, "The Sculptor's Funeral" (1905).
Zola's last novel: Émile Zola (1840-1902) was a prolific novelist and proponent of the naturalist school. His novels were criticized for their supposedly sordid subject matter, but he was an important influence on many serious novelists in Europe and America. The novel referred to here is probably La Bête Humaine—see below.
colorless fluid: This may be formalin, a colorless solution of forty percent formaldehyde in water or methyl alcohol, which began to be used in the early 1890s as a deodorant (despite its own pungent odor) and preservative, even as an embalming agent.
Violet water: Violet water is made by steeping leaves and flowers in water until it becomes fragrant. Medicinally, violet water has been used to treat gout, spleen disorders, fever, headache, and inflammation. The plant contains the aspirin-like substance, methyl salicylate, as well as antiseptic properties that make it ideal for use in a face tonics targeted at relieving symptoms of various skin eruptions and sores.
watch charm: an ornament attached to the chain or ribbon (the fob) of a pocket watch.
Great actress . . . wicked French play: possibly a reference to Clara Morris and Camille.
Bernhardt play the same play: Camille was one of Bernhardt's great roles.
Sarah Bernhardt: Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), generally acknowledged as the greatest actress of her time, was born Rosine Bernard. She made her debut at the Comédie Française in 1862. By the mid 1870s her position was secure; though critics were divided as to her beauty, they agreed on the power of her golden voice, her realism, and her magnetic personality, which she cultivated off-stage as well. She owned her own theater in Paris and toured throughout the world in the 1880s and 1890s; Cather saw her in Omaha in 1892. Bernhardt played most of the great roles of the 19th century theater, and American and English emotional actresses such as Morris and Fanny Davenport frequently followed her lead, since a role Bernhardt made popular had a good chance of success elsewhere. University of Pennsylvania Library
Camille: The English play Camille is based on the play La Dame aux camélias (1852), based on the novel (1848) by Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824-1895). In the play, Armand Duval, a poor young man of a good family, falls in love with a famous courtesan, Camille (named Marguerite Gautier in the original). Skeptical of his love at first, she comes to return it and the two retire to an idyllic life in the country. However, Armand's father comes to her and begs her to set Armand free for the sake of his reputation and for the marriage chances of Armand's young sister. Camille pretends to be tired of Armand and returns to Paris and her old life. She is, however, dying of tuberculosis, and the two are reunited before her death. The role of Camille was also a favorite of Sarah Bernhardt and many other tragic actresses.
Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853) is based on the story of Camille, and the play has been made into films as well, notably one starring Greta Garbo (1936).
James O'Neill: James O'Neill (1849-1920 was born in Ireland and came to the U.S. as a child. He first appeared on the stage in Cincinnati in 1867, and soon was playing in stock companies in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. In 1882 he played Dantès in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo to immense popular success. Although he was also successful in Shakespearean and other historical roles, his public wanted to see him as Monte Cristo, and he played the role over 6,000 times over thirty years. Cather remembered him as one of the best Monte Cristos she had seen ("Willa Cather Mourns Old Opera House"). O'Neill was the father of playwright Eugene O'Neill, who portrayed his father as James Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Mr. Russell: Sol Smith Russell (1848-1902), an actor, singer, and drummer, arrived in New York in 1871, where he joined Daly's Company. He became well known for his comedic performances and for his comedy, A Poor Relation, and he toured widely throughout the United States during his career of nearly 40 years. He became paralyzed in 1900 and died two years later.
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery and also at Northeastern Illinois University
Mr. Keene: Thomas Wallace Keene (1840-1898), a New York-born actor whose real name was Thomas R. Eagleton, made several cross-country tours of America with his own company between 1880 and his death in 1898. He generally appeared in Shakespearean companies, and was known as a tragedian.
Robert Downing: Robert Downing (1857-1944) appeared in minor roles Mary Anderson's company in New York by 1880; by 1882 he was playing leading roles with her, such as Claude in Lady of Lyons. When Anderson left for London, Downing played with Joseph Jefferson's company between 1883 and 1888. Odell first notes his appearance in New York as Spartacus in The Gladiator in 1886 (Annals of the New York Stage, XIII: 230), and return engagements thereafter, saying that Downing was "trying to be a Forrest" (XIII: 459). He was best known for his physique as displayed in the lead role of such plays as The Gladiator. Downing's basic repertoire in the early 1890s consisted of The Gladiator, Virginius, Ingomar, Damon and Pythias, Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
neck: I.e., the chest in a man or the upper bosom in a woman that is revealed by a low cut garment.
Twelve years ago: Robert Downing became a leading man in Mary Anderson's company by 1882, about twelve years before Cather writes this in late 1893.