"The world's a theatre, the earth a stage,
Which God and Nature do with actors fill."
"My soul, sit thou a patient looker-on,
Judge not the play before the play is done:
The plot has many changes: every day
Speaks a new scene: the last act crowns the play."
The most popular theatre in America, according to the advertisements, where nothing was played but the "continuous," was packed from parquet to top gallery with a perspiring crowd of pleasure-seekers one hot August night. The papers had said —via the society columns, of course – that everybody was out of town for the summer, and incidentally, therefore, that all the ordinary places of amusement were closed, except Les Variétés. However, the city was not quite deserted; for, of the anchored ninety-nine hundredths of the population, all who could do so, apparently in despair of other amusement, and attracted by the popular prices, had crowded into "the home of refined vaudeville," as it was called on the programme. The house was fluttering with fans; most of the spectators and actors felt as though they were slowly deliquescing in perspiration, but, on the whole, the audience seemed to be enjoying it.
The usual mélange– how natural and appropriate it seems to use French words when treating of the vaudeville! – of entertainments entirely suited even to a Mrs. Boffin, become a world-wide type of matronly modesty and virtue – had been provided by the high-minded and scrutinizing management. Ladies in short skirts capered nimbly over the stage to the "lascivious pleasing" of the banjo; gentlemen with one leg rode marvellously endowed bicycles in impossible ways; tumblers frisked and frolicked about without the slightest regard either for temperature or gravitation; happy tramps, – at least the announcements said they were happy, – whose airy, carefully tattered garments were in entire consonance with the heated atmosphere, delivered themselves of speeches full of rare old humor and fairly bristling with Bœotian witticisms. There were men singers and women singers, musical cranks, freak piano-players, monologue artists, burlesquers, and then a little play, – at least they said it was a play.
So with these multifarious stirrers-up-of-varied-emotions the evening drew toward its close. Finally, just before the biograph went through its eye-shattering, soul-distressing performance, the little boy who walked solemnly across the stage before each turn with such a queer, self-important strut that the regular patrons – those who came early and brought their luncheon – felt disappointed when he took a vacation, set out upon the racks, provided on either side of the proscenium arch for the purpose, a tablet bearing the name "Mademoiselle Hélène."
When the curtain rose thereafter the stage was set for a woodland. The lights were turned thrillingly low, so that the expectant audience were scarcely aware how the tiny little body, whom they saw standing in the full blaze of the calcium-light ray suddenly flashed upon her from the mysterious apparatus in the balcony, had reached the centre of the stage.
The little miss was apparently not more than six years old. She had short white stockings on her plump little pink legs, and her dainty feet were covered with black ankle ties. She wore fluffy little pink and white skirts like a ballet-dancer, and with her little bare arms she blew graceful kisses to the audience as she bounded before it. With her sweet blue eyes, her golden hair, she made a beautiful picture, as she pirouetted around the stage on the tips of her ten little toes, kicking up her little legs, bending her back, wriggling her skirts in imitation of older and more sophisticated performers, – to put it mildly, – which would have been more amusing if it had not been a little pitiful.
So little, so cool, so sweet, so fresh, so innocent she seemed, that in the hot theatre on that hot night no wonder a great, rapturous "oh-h-h!" of delight and approbation burst from feminine lips – and masculine ones, too, if the truth be told. As the little maid in perfect silence continued her dance, exclamations of admiration rose from the audience, and when she finished her first turn and stopped panting, bowing, hand-kissing, the theatre rang with hand-clapping. Though some of the fathers and mothers in the audience, with thoughts of their own little folk, murmured under breaths, "What a pity! She ought to be at home in bed!" the witchery of her movements and the charm of her face were as strong upon them as they were upon the others; more so – they had children of their own.
As she stopped and stood alone on the large stage after her final pas, bowing again and again and throwing more kisses in that sweetly infantile way, there was a commotion among the people enjoying "standing room only" in the passage-way at the back of the parquet. A tall, broad-shouldered man forced himself through the crowd, in spite of angry remonstrances and rude resistance, and ran down the aisle. His pale face was working with emotion, his eyes shining.
"Nellie!" he cried as he ran, in a voice that vibrated above the applause in the theatre. "Don't you know me? Nellie! Nellie!" he continued, stretching out his arms toward the little girl.
The noise of clapping hands died away as if by magic, as they heard the cry, full of love and longing. The man stopped in full view of the great audience. The little girl, hearing the cry, with one hand still in the air where the kisses had stopped half blown away, looked at the man over the footlights, half-dazed, apparently, by the situation.
"Papa! Papa!" she cried, suddenly awakening to life and bounding toward him. "Papa, take me home!" Every soul in the hushed theatre heard the words in the sweet treble of childhood.
"Where's your mother, baby?" asked the man, apparently oblivious of everything but the little lass.
"She's dead, papa," answered the child, brushing her little hand across her eyes. "I'm so glad you've found me. Oh, take me away!"
"I will! I will!" said the man, desperately, forcing his way toward the stage.
Two of the ushers and an officer had hurried down the aisle and seized him by the arms. The piano-player rose from his neglected instrument and caught him also.
"Let me go!" roared the man, shoving them aside with superhuman strength, apparently. "She's my daughter, I tell you! I will have her!"
The lights on the stage were suddenly turned up. A hard-featured man came forward and grasped the child by the arm.
"What's all this row?" he cried; "I'm the manager of Mademoiselle Hélène. Her mother left the child with me. She gets good food and clothes and is well taken care of. What more does she want?"
"I want my papa! Oh, I want you!" cried the little girl.
"And you shall have me, dear."
"No," said the man on the stage, roughly, "she shall not!"
"Gentlemen," cried the other man, turning about and facing the audience. "Friends, there is my little daughter. Her mother ran away from me, left me. I haven't seen Nellie for two years. I just happened in here to-night and recognized her, and – "
"Give him his daughter," broke out a burly man in the third row of the parquet, rising in his seat as he spoke and shaking his fist at the man on the stage, "or – "
The house was in a perfect uproar now. The women in tears, the men screaming with flushed, excited faces.
"Let him have her!"
"Give her up!"
"Let the child go with her father!"
"Lynch the wretch!"
The man on the stage fairly quailed before this outburst of popular passion; the ushers and officer had released the other man, but before he could take a step the local manager appeared on the stage in the midst of the confusion. Lifting his hand to the crowd, he finally succeeded in stilling the tumult.
"I have heard it all!" he cried, as soon as he could command attention. "This theatre don't want to part father and daughter. Give the child to the man. And get out of here!" he added, turning fiercely and shaking his fist at the hard-featured man on the stage.
The latter let go the child's arm and shrank back in the wings, followed by the jeers of the crowd. Then the local manager took the little girl in his arms, stepped over the footlights, and handed her to the man who had claimed her.
He lifted her up, kissed her, and pressed her tenderly to his breast. She clasped her little arms around his neck and dropped her head on his shoulder with a low cry of content.
"Thank you, sir!" said the man to the manager; "thank you all, ladies and gentlemen! Oh, I have got her back again!"
He turned with his precious burden and walked rapidly down the aisle, passed out of the door, and disappeared in the night.
The house rang with cheers. Men and women stood up and clapped and applauded and yelled like mad. When a semblance of order was restored, the local manager dismissed the audience. As he said, none of the performers were in condition to go on further after the little tragedy they had witnessed, which had ended so happily, after all. Nor was the audience in a mood for any more vaudeville after the bit of real life in which they had participated.
"How did it go off, Bill?" asked the brown-haired man of the local manager in the office half an hour later.
"Fine!" said the manager. "It was the greatest act I ever saw. You did splendidly, old man. I congratulate you."
"It has only one disadvantage," remarked the hard-featured man: "you can only do it once in each town. It's only good for one-night stands."
"And didn't Nellie do it well?" returned the other.
"She did that," replied the local manager; "she couldn't have done it better! It almost made me weep myself."
"That child's a born actress," said the hard-featured man; "she'll be a treasure some day, sure."
"She's a treasure now," replied the local manager. "What a pity we couldn't do it over to-night!"
"Do you know, men," said the brown-haired man, "I feel real guilty somehow. Seems like such a fraud – "
"Nonsense, Bill!" interrupted the manager, yet with a note of sympathy in his tone.
"Rot!" commented hard features, not the least comprehending.
"Where is she now?" asked the other, shaking his head dubiously, still uncertain and unconvinced.
"Her father and mother took her home right after the performance, and I hope she is fast asleep in her bed by this time, like a good little girl," continued the manager. "Here's your check, Bill. Be on hand Monday night when we open at X – "
"I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play,
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ."
The crime had been one of peculiar atrociousness. While the little old man who kept the quaint curiosity-shop down on Linden Street seemed to have few or no friends, he was blessed with a great many acquaintances, especially among the people of the better class, for whom it was quite a fad to visit the dingy, shabby little store, with its assortment of bric-a-brac, mouldy books, articles of virtu, and antiques, genuine or spurious, valuable or worthless, all heaped about in promiscuous confusion.
Indeed, the "Major" was not the least curious object in the collection. Few people knew that the title represented gallant and youthful soldiering in Rebellion days before he shrivelled and dried up in the musty little shop. When, therefore, he was found dead among his raffle of goods, about half after seven on a summer evening, with his brains brutally beaten out by a hammer, which lay by his side, the greatest excitement was manifested everywhere. That a man should be murdered in a store on one of the main thoroughfares of the city at that hour and in that way; that the murderer should make his escape by the front door, which was left open, were in themselves sufficiently remarkable facts to engage widespread attention.
Rewards were offered by the city government; the metropolitan police force, supplemented by the best detectives that could be imported, who were paid by private subscription, worked upon the case in vain. No clew presented itself, nothing whatever was discovered. The contents of the shop were finally sold at auction and the store was closed. The estate, which was surprisingly small, contrary to the general opinion, – which, in fact, consisted merely of the proceeds of the sale of the goods, – was administered in the interests of some distant connections, and the whole affair after a short time was practically forgotten. Yet somewhere on the earth a man wandered with the guilt of murder heavy on his soul.
When it was announced in the advertisements that Sir Henry Irving, the great English actor, was to play The Bells on Thursday night, society – and those not within the charmed circle who could scrape together the unusual price demanded by the elaborate nature of Sir Henry's staging – anticipated a great intellectual treat. To see the character of Matthias interpreted by such a master of the tragic art could hardly be called entertaining, of course, yet anything which takes us out of the humdrum routine of every-day life and quickens the blood that beats with such commonplace sluggishness ordinarily is most desirable. It is easy, therefore, to understand the avidity with which the opportunity for paying the unusual price for being shocked and terrified was welcomed.
The play, with its damnable iteration of chiming sleigh-bells and its awful portrayal of the struggles of a crime-stained human soul against diabolic memories, proceeded with that wonderful smoothness and effectiveness for which Sir Henry's productions were famous. After the short intermission at the close of the second act, the audience, most of whom were familiar with the story, settled themselves with delicious thrills of foreboding anticipation to witness the dreadful and harrowing dénouement in which the murderer's dream – that the crime of years is at last exposed and the brand of guilt is fixed upon his honored brow – is exhibited on the stage in all its terrific realism.
The house, including the stage, was totally dark. A weird, ghastly beam of light thrown from the wings fell fitfully upon the face of Sir Henry, – no, of Matthias himself. The great actor's identity was lost, merged, forgotten in the character he portrayed. Not another thing could be perceived in the theatre. The gaze of every man and woman and child in that vast assemblage was concentrated upon that beautiful, mobile, terrible face. The silence with which the audience listened to that piercing, shuddering voice out of the darkness was oppressive. Could one's attention have been distracted from that stage he might have caught the quickening intake of deep breaths, or here and there marked the low, quivering sighs with which nervous people, under the influence of that terrible portrayal of the agony of remorse and apprehension at detected murder, trembled, watched, and waited.
Yet there was nothing actually to be seen in the opera-house but the face of the actor, or sometimes a white, ghastly hand and a dim, dark suggestion of a body writhing in mortal torture, so keen as almost to pass belief, in a tour de force of unwilling confession. The detachment was perfect, the illusion was complete; there before them was a soul in judgment.
As the man was forced, under the influence of a higher power than his own, to describe the murder, the base violation of hospitality, the blow of the axe that killed a guest, by which fifteen years before he had laid the foundation of his fortune; as he was constrained to act again before his judges in hypnotic trance the awful happenings of the tragedy of that Christmas Eve, of which none had suspected him; and when, on being released from the spell, his confession was read to him by the court, and the realization came to him that the fabric of respectability which he had carefully created upon the shifting sand of murder had crashed into nothing, – who, that has seen it, or heard it, will ever forget the fearful anguish and despair of that wrecked soul?
As Matthias fell prostrate at the feet of the judges, moaning in utter desolation and abandonment, the appalling stillness was suddenly broken, and this time the sound came not from the stage. Out of the darkness of the auditorium a thin, high voice, fraught with a note of torture more real and intense, if possible, than that which the marvellous skill of the actor had produced, was hurled into the great vault of the theatre.
"No, no," it cried; "you are wrong. It was a hammer!"
The surprise of the audience for the moment held them still, while the voice shrieked out in the darkness, —
"It is enough! I'll confess. Guilty, oh, my God, guilty! It was I! The murder – light, for God's sake, light!"
A woman screamed suddenly. People rose to their feet. One of those strange, swaying movements which bespeak a panic ran through the crowd. Matthias on the stage rose instantly, faced about, and walked toward the dark footlights, a genuine horror in his soul this time, for no human voice that he had ever heard had carried such mortal pain as that which had just spoken. The theatre was filled with a babel of voices. Confused shouts and cries came from all sides.
"What is it?"
"Go on with the performance!"
At that instant the lights were turned up. There, in the middle aisle, a few rows from the orchestra rail, a tall, thin man, his haggard face white with emotion, his eyes staring, his teeth clinched 'neath bloodless lips, stood swaying unsteadily to and fro. His hands uplifted as if to ward off a blow, he stood utterly oblivious of everything but Matthias. From the chair beside him a woman with a face scarcely less white, in which were mingled incredulity, surprise, and horror, reached her arms up to him as if to save him.
"I can't stand it any longer!" cried the man, staring up at Matthias. "You've done it. I'll confess all! It has torn me to pieces!" he screamed, clutching at his throat. "The Major – I beat him to death with his hammer, like you did, for his money. I took it from his person. I knew it was there. I was his friend, his only friend. My God! There was no place to burn his body. He's always at my feet. He's staring at me now by you on the stage!"
Sir Henry shrank away involuntarily as the man went on.
"Pity, pity!" he wailed, staggering, stumbling forward, falling upon his knees nearer to Sir Henry. "Mercy!" he whispered at last, yet with such distinctness that they heard him in every corner of the theatre.
He knelt with his hands outstretched toward the stage, waiting for reprieve, sentence, condemnation, – God knows what.
The audience stared likewise with suspended hearts from the great but mimic figure of murder on one side of the footlights to the greater and real figure of murder upon the other. As they gazed the man wavered forward again, sank lower, his hands fell, but before he collapsed completely, an officer of the law, the first to recover his wits in the presence of the catastrophe, ran down the aisle and pounced upon him. Grasping his shoulder, he cried, —
"You're my prisoner. I arrest you!"
"Too late," whispered the man; "I'm – going – going – to plead – in another – court."
He pitched forward and fell on his face – dead. And a woman, dry-eyed with horror, old love surviving honor, respect, righteousness, knelt by his side, took his head in her arms, and strove to kiss away from his brow the mark of Cain.
So the mystery of the Major's murder was solved at last, and Sir Henry, as he thought it over in his chamber that night, realized that he had received the greatest tribute that mortal man could pay to his acting. His art had been so perfect – he had appeared the incarnation of terror, remorse, and retribution – that to that struggling soul he had been as the voice of conscience, – nay, as the very voice of God. For the man had actually given way, broken down, and confessed a secret crime under the mighty spell of his acting, and, as the criminal in the play, had died in the confession!