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Joan Attends A First-night Performance

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



BY KEBLE HOWARD

I WAS standing in the foyer, watching the long line of streaming cabs and carriages. The white, wet mackintoshes of the coachmen and footmen glistened dismally beneath the electric light. The sleek women and puffy men, as they hurried from their broughams into the theatre, looked peevishly from beneath wrinkled brows. Everybody told everybody that the night was horribly wet, not so much because the speakers were searching after a reputation for originality as that everybody insisted on being recognised by everybody.

The hubbub was still at its height when a white-clad figure came rushing down the pavement and hurled itself —satin shoes, silk cape and all-into the foyer. It was, of course, my cousin.

"Good heavens ! " I cried. "You don't mean to say you've run all the way ? "

Joan, panting hard, shook her head. "Only about a hundred yards ! " she gasped.

" A hundred yards on a night like this ! What on earth did you do that for, you stupid child ? "

" I was afraid I should be late. We got into a sort of line, and just crept and crept along in a simply maddening manner. So at last I thought the only thing to do was to jump out and run, and here I am. Don't be cross, please ! "

Two large brown eyes, half-laughing, half-pleading, looked up into mine. I pressed my lips together, and tried to persuade myself that I looked stern.

" Are your feet wet ? "

"Not a bit ! These shoes are much thicker than they look. It hasn't begun, has it ? "

"Not yet. Do you not think you had better go and put your hair straight ? "

" Does it look very untidy ? "

It looked glorious, but I wasn't going to say so. Dignity, I remembered, must be maintained at all costs. " Not particularly. Come along."

The stalls and boxes, as we entered, were alive with diamonds, swaying fans, and smiles. The dress circle, as bravely as might be, reflected the stalls, and the upper circle, dimly enough, reflected the dress circle. The real enthusiasts were in the pit and gallery.

Wholly unconscious of men that stared and women that levelled glasses, Joan-o'-the-Meadows slipped into her seat and began eagerly to look round.

"Show me the celebrities," she demanded.

" There aren't any."

Her face fell. "Not one ? "

"Depends upon what you call a celebrity."

" I call everybody a celebrity that I've ever heard of. Do point them out."

I pulled myself together and managed to find for her some half-dozen titled folk, a few musicians, a novelist or two, a barrister, a cricketer, and several dramatic critics. From peeress to pressman, my cousin gazed at them long and eagerly. I am inclined to think, however, that she found the cricketer the most fascinating.

" He made ninety-six against Middlesex last week," she informed me.

"Indeed ? "

" Of course. Didn't you read about it ? And he's quite high up in the batting averages. I'm awfully glad I've seen him close to ; aren't you ? "

"Awfully."

A pause. She was studying the profile of a gentle-man whose historical romances gladden the heart of many a country cousin, and keep the counters of local libraries well polished.

" Like him ? " I asked.

Joan drew her brows together. "I'm not sure," she replied. " He's not quite what I pictured him."

"Poor man ! But you mustn't leave off reading his books."

" Of course not. All the same, it's a pity authors don't look as nice as cricketers, isn't it ? "

I was about to remind her that the difference in the conditions of life might have something to do with the matter when the lights went down, the curtain went up, and the pit, noisily self-assertive, bade us keep silence.

The piece was a musical comedy, and began with the customary swishing of petticoats. My cousin, I noticed, was trying her best to distinguish the words, and eyed me distrustfully when I assured her that they didn't really matter.

The opening chorus having been brought to an unsatisfactory conclusion, a well-proportioned, breathless young lady stepped into the middle of the stage and explained the situation. It was evident that the other young ladies took little or no interest in the matter. Those of them, indeed, who didn't happen to have friends in the audience were busily engaged in arranging their skirts.

"What lovely girls ! " whispered Joan.

"Which?"

"All of them. I wish you wouldn't pretend to be so superior."

"I'm not."

"Not what ? "

"Not pretending to be."

"You mean that you are superior."

"No, I don't. I mean that

"Shut up ! " growled the pit, and we did.

The performance about this time was a good deal interrupted by the arrivals of the principals. In accordance with custom and their contracts, they came on one by one, and each entrance, of course, stirred a different portion of the house to enthusiasm. As nearly as I could calculate, the act was more than half over before we had worked through our ovations.

"It must be nice to be so popular," shouted my cousin. The leading comedian was bowing and smiling, one hand on his heart and the other behind his back.

"Ripping ! " I roared.

"Is he going to be very funny ? " she shrieked. "In six weeks' time," I bellowed.

The piece, jerkily enough, proceeded. For my part, I took but little note of it. I was watching Joan's face, and the puzzled, wondering expressions that chased each other across those honest features. Sometimes, when a cockney vulgarism was received with boisterous approval, she would glance at me swiftly from the corners of those splendid eyes. Once, I fear, she caught me yawning. The mistake did not occur again, however, so that my persistent merriment added to her bewilderment.

At the end of the first act the bravest of the men fought their way into the corridors, while the women arranged themselves in pairs and chattered. Few of them thought it worth while to discuss the piece. They were content to take it, good or bad, as a matter of course. Not so with Joan-o'-the-Meadows.

" I can't quite follow the plot," she confided. " Why should the person who left ten thousand a year to the heroine insist on the heroine becoming a Suffragette ? "

" Oh, just to make it funny."

" But it's so silly ! Anyone who made a will like that must have been out of his mind when he made it, and so the will wouldn't count."

" Of course not. I don't suppose they thought of that."

" And then there's another thing. Why do all those girls keep on doing such odd things with their arms and hands and heads ? They'd look much prettier if they were simply natural."

" My dear Joan," I expostulated, " you don't under-stand. That constant movement is very important nowadays, and a clever gentleman has been specially engaged to think out those fascinating attitudes and teach them to the beautiful ladies in the lovely dresses."

"I don't care," my cousin retorted. "It would be much nicer if the girls were more natural."

The second and third acts were rather like the first, but sadder. The usual uproar took place at the fall of the final curtain, the gallery and the management vieing with each other as to which should provide the better after-entertainment for the remainder of the house.

" At any rate," I protested, as the brougham splashed homewards, ,,

you can't say you haven't been to a first night."

" No," said Joan. And then, after a moment's hesitation, she added, " Thank you very much, cousin Kenneth."

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