Published in 'The Theatre' - February 1892, (UK).
"Harry, you might take me to the theatre to-night!"
"My dear child, on a night like this, with the thermometer at Heaven knows what, and not a breath of air!"
"Oh, but if we get interested, we shall forget all about the heat."
"And you will, too; it is only because you are bored just now that you feel it so much. ... It is our last week in town, Harry, and I have been nowhere."
"Oh, I mean not to any theatres well, hardly any! Do take me. You will, won't you? Let us go to the Thespian. You know you said the other day that you would like to see Miss Bertram act again, and she makes her re-appearance to-night."
Ce que la femme veut! In ten minutes I had won the day; an hour later we were driving towards the Strand, and after a little, by a lucky chance, were seated in two stalls that had been returned at the last moment.
The house was full, in spite of the heat, and the audience was an exceptionally brilliant and well-dressed one; for Miss Bertram was an established favourite, and was making her re-appearance after a long tour in America. She was a very beautiful woman, though, as my husband remarked, "a little too full-blown now."
"A few years ago," he went on, "she was splendidly handsome; half the town went mad over her."
"You amongst the others?" I gently enquired.
"I used to come here pretty often to see her, I'll admit that much," he responded.
"I thought as much. I understand now why you were so reluctant to come here to-night; you were afraid of falling under her spell again."
My husband laughed back at me with the happy frankness of complete mutual understanding. We had only been married a few months, and in my absolute certainty of my husband's affection, it gave me a foolish pleasure to play at being jealous, to pretend to think he had been easily and frequently captivated before he met me. And so this evening I pretended to think that instead of being overcome by the heat, as he said he was, he was really the prey to uncontrollable emotion at the sight of the captivating actress.
Certainly one could understand an infatuation for her. She not only had an enchantingly beautiful face, but, in spite of advancing embonpoint, her figure was superb. It was delightful to watch the magnificent freedom of her gait and gestures as she crossed the stage. As an actress, she hardly satisfied me; I thought her heavy, monotonous, unemotional, wanting in variety and intelligence. But I must have been wrong, judging from the enthusiastic manner in which she was applauded.
After the first act, I took a good look round the house, observed with keen interest the latest style in hair-dressing, picked out, as only a woman can, the prettiest and best-dressed specimens of my own sex, and remarked on the strange preponderance of bald heads amongst the other, with an inclusive glance at my husband's perspiring cranium. Finally, my vaguely wandering attention suddenly fixed itself with vivid interest, on the box immediately over the stage-box to the left of me. Three people were occupying it: a very distinguished-looking man of about forty, and a most charming girl, with lovely dark eyes, and a radiantly happy expression. It was easy to see that they were either engaged or (and as a young matron, myself, I inclined towards the latter belief) just married.
It is a delightful thing to see two people raised above everyday life into a rarefied atmosphere of happiness, and I watched them with deep sympathy and interest. The third occupant of the box puzzled me. He was so evidently de trop - the man and girl so entirely ignored him. Had they been completely unaware of his existence, they could not have appeared more unconscious of it. They never turned their heads to address one word to him, nor moved their seats one inch to enable him to have a better view. There he sat, silent and motionless, with his great dark eyes fixed eagerly on the stage.
I have (my husband tells me in unflattering moments) a vivid imagination. I like to piece together the casual incidents of life, to evolve situations, to guess at the links that bind people, or the feuds that separate them. But about this young man I could come to no conclusion. Could he be the brother of the beautiful girl, or a rejected lover, compelled by some subtle web of circumstance, to the intolerable agony of looking on at the blips of another man?
The curtain drew up. Miss Bertram was on the stage. I glanced upwards at the box. Ah! at last, I had solved one part of the mystery, at any rate! In the rapt, hungry, adoring, entreating expression of the young man's face, as he fixed those glowing eyes on the beautiful actress, I read his story, a story of infatuation, and passion, and reckless self-abandonment. He seemed absolutely unconscious of everything and everybody except Miss Bertram. His gaze dwelt always on her with the same devouring, burning, look, and followed her every movement as if compelled by a mesmeric influence.
I felt infinitely interested and sorry. My attention kept straying from the drama on the stage to the real life drama in the box. I nudged my husband. "Look, Harry, just glance up to that box one moment, the one just over the stage-box. Do look at that young man."
My husband turned indifferently round, vexed at the interruption. "Young man! I shouldn't call him young," he remarked carelessly, turning back to the stage again. I resolved to wait till a more convenient season. The curtain fell on the second act, Miss Bertram was enthusiastically called for, and came forward, smiling and bowing. I could not help looking to see how the dark young man was affected by his divinity's ovation. To my surprise, instead of joining in it, he sat as still as a statue, though that strange, intent look, never wandered from her for a moment. I determined I would waken my husband's interest. "Now, do look at the young man," I said; "just look how worshippingly he is looking at Miss Bertram."
He turned obediently, and looked earnestly at the box. "But surely, my dear child, you do not call him a young man," he said again; "and as to being interested in Miss Bertram, it strikes me he is far better employed talking to that sweet-looking girl. Now that is evidently a 'case,' I should say, in spite of some disparity."
"You are looking at the wrong man, you old goose; I don't mean the tall, fair, middle-aged man; I mean the dark, pale young fellow sitting at the back."
"I see no young fellow sitting at the back."
"You must be getting blind, dear! Do you mean to say you can't see him sitting behind that pretty girl?"
He looked long and earnestly, at length turned to me with a puzzled air, and said "One of us must be labouring under some delusion. I wonder which! Certainly I can only see two people in the box."
I was too taken aback to say more. Was he going blind, poor dear, or was he trying to tease me! I was fairly bewildered, and subsided into astonished silence. Turning towards my husband presently, I found him speaking to a man whom he introduced to me as a Mr. Hibbert, an old friend of his. The thought struck me that I would make him the umpire in our argument.
"My husband and I were having a little discussion before you came in," I said, after a while, "will you arbitrate? You see that box over there?"
"Now, are there not three people in it?"
Mr. Hibbert fixed his glass in his eye, and studied the box as carefully as my husband had done. "Not at this moment, certainly," he said; "I see a particularly charming girl, and a man evidently devoted. Where is your third person, Mrs. Nicholl?"
"Just at the back of the girl's chair. You must see him; a pale young man with intensely dark eyes."
Mr. Hibbert looked long and earnestly. "I certainly do not," he said at last. "I think you are perhaps misled by the reflection of that light against the curtain," he went on, feebly, "it is curious how one can be deceived in that way."
This was too absurd! I felt indignant, as my husband laughed with cruel enjoyment. Mr. Hibbert did not laugh, though. He seemed suddenly to have grown depressed and serious. I spoke to him twice, but got no reply. He sat staring at the box with an absorbed, far-away look. The curtain rose on the last act, and in this Miss Bertram had splendid opportunities. In the death-struggle at the close, she had to rush down to the front of the stage. I felt an irresistible impulse to see how the strange-looking young man was affected by this episode. I looked at the box. There he sat, with the same eager, hungry look, and his eyes with that strange deep glow, looking directly into the eyes of the advancing actress. It seemed to me that by the sheer force of an irresistible attraction, she was compelled to look straight at him, as she came towards the footlights. Was it a marvellous piece of acting, or the reality of an unspeakable horror, that seemed to freeze her blood, and stiffen her limbs, and transform the living woman into a rigid statue of fear and agony! She stood there, rooted to the spot, with her dilated eyes fixed upon those other terrible eyes. Then, with a frantic gesture of terror and repulsion, and a long thrilling shriek, she fell heavily on the stage.
The stage drama demanded that the curtain should drop at this moment; poetic justice was satisfied; the play was ended, and from the excited audience, rang round after round of frenzied applause at one of the most marvellous pieces of realistic acting the modern stage has witnessed. My husband was completely carried away. Mr. Hibbert sat silent, with a most curious and unfathomable expression in his face. I looked at the box. The dark young man was no longer there, and yet I had only turned my eyes away for a moment!
The people were still wildly clamouring for Miss Bertram. She did not appear, until the storm and noise seemed gathering into a tumult. At last she came forward, leaning heavily on the arm of the principal actor. She was evidently very ill, and her efforts to smile in acknowledging the roars of applause, were painful. She had apparently no intention of crossing the stage, but clung to her partner's arm convulsively, and with one hurried, terror-stricken glance at the box, staggered off, almost fainting.
My husband was a little too enthusiastic, I thought, in his praises of her, and said that that dying scene was one of the finest bits of acting he had ever seen, and he was an old playgoer.
"And the remarkable thing is, that she began in burlesque and dancing parts," he said. "When I used to see her years ago, she was looked upon simply as a beautiful woman and an exquisite dancer. No one could possibly have suspected the existence of such tragic power as she showed to-night."
The papers next morning, without exception, expressed the same opinion, and one and all dwelt on the marvellous stroke of genius that could rise to so superb and unlooked-for a climax at the last moment of a long and exhausting play. The actress had stepped at a bound into the front rank of the highest walk of art. But strangely enough, the triumph was never repeated. To the astonishment of the public, Miss Bertram on the day following, threw up her engagement at the Thespian theatre, and abruptly quitted London.
Such an act at such a moment, with such splendid possibilities opening out to her, was simply suicidal. But the fact remains, that no persuasions from her manager and agent, and no consideration of being bound to pay a heavy fine, would induce her to alter her resolution. She declared, without giving any reason, that she would never set foot in the Thespian again, and she kept her word.
In fact, she absented herself from the London stage for many years. Before we left town, Mr. Hibbert came to dine with us, and, as a matter of course, Miss Bertram came under discussion, her extraordinary freak in throwing up her engagement, being one of the topics of the hour.
"Well, at least we can congratulate ourselves that we were present that evening," Mr. Hibbert said; "it was an occasion."
"Yes, in more ways than one," said my husband, laughing. "Do you remember the mysterious man in the box, Gertie, who only condescended to reveal himself to your eyes, and was invisible to everyone else."
Mr. Hibbert started and looked up with sudden interest.
"You may say what you please," I said firmly, "but as clearly as I see you now, I saw that man."
"I remember you described him as being dark, with large dark eyes, Mrs. Nicholl. Had he a moustache?"
"Yes, a black moustache, and he was unusually pale - very interesting looking."
"It is most strange, most remarkable," he said to himself. Then aloud, "Mrs. Nicholl, you are a very clever artist. Could you by possibility have retained that young man's face in your mind sufficiently to make a sketch of it?"
"I believe I could. I will try."
My artist's memory helped me, and in a little while, I had completed, what I felt myself, was an excellent likeness. Mr. Hibbert uttered an exclamation of amazement, and sat looking at it with an expression of what seemed to me recognition, alarm, and horror on his face.
"Well, what's wrong, Hibbert?" said my husband, who was much amused that his friend should pretend to treat the matter seriously.
"Is this a sketch from spirit-land, Gertie? Rather a good-looking fellow, I should say!" Mr. Hibbert was studying me with intense interest. "What I am going to say will strike you as absurd, and absolutely incredible," he said at last. "But the sketch you have made is of a man whose sad history is well enough known to me, but whom you could never, I should imagine, have seen."
"Never have seen! When I have drawn a sketch of him!" I exclaimed.
"Suppose I give you a theory of mine, about the connection between the mysterious young man, and the extraordinary refusal of Miss Bertram to act again at the Thespian theatre. You know, I think, that I am deeply interested in psychical researches, and have a firm belief that we stand on the threshold of great discoveries with regard to the connection between the spirit world and our own."
My husband nodded with assumed gravity. I listened with breathless interest.
"Some years back, when Miss Lottie Bertram was promoted from one of the lesser music halls to the Thespian, a lot of young fellows quite lost their heads over her."
"And one or two middle-aged bachelors, too, if I remember rightly," put in my husband, sotto voce. Mr. Hibbert ignored the remark, and went on. "Her most complete conquest was a young man, named - but no; I will not tell you his name. At any rate the girl simply held him, body and soul. There was something positively appalling in the influence she had over him. I never saw anything like it. Night after night he sat in that box."
"What box?" I exclaimed.
"The box you pointed out to me. I have often thought that if any place might be haunted, that box should be. Night after night have I seen him there - always with that intense eager gaze which you have caught so wonderfully, Mrs. Nicholl - his whole being absorbed by the beautiful radiant creature on the stage. He got introduced to her somehow, lavished hundreds on her, was the slave of her every whim. She was a vampire, who preyed upon him, and sucked away from him character, self-respect, will; destroyed him, body and soul. When he could no longer afford to give her the splendid presents she looked for as a right, she threw him over. In the hope of winning her back, the reckless fool forged bills for a large amount, and gave her the money. When detection seemed imminent, he blew out his brains. The whole affair was hushed up by his people, fortunately - I mean the forgery, and the connection with Miss Bertram. I happened to be placed in a position that made the facts known to me, and now that you are in possession of them, I will give you my theory. It is my firm belief," he went on, lowering his voice, and speaking most impressively, "that the appearance so strangely revealed to you, was also visible to Miss Bertram, and that that magnificent climax at the close of the death scene, was not acting at all, but simply uncontrollable horror at the manifestation of the form of her lover appearing in the old spot, looking at her with the old absorbed gaze. And I firmly believe that the reason Miss Bertram so positively refuses to set foot in the Thespian again, is that she dares not face the possibility of a second manifestation."
Whether this explanation is a satisfactory one or no, I leave it to the Psychical Society and to Mr. Frederic Myers to determine.