THE LOVE OF CLOTILDE

Armando Palacio Valdés

In the dressing-room of Clotilde, leading actress of one of the most important theaters in the capital, there gathered every night about half a dozen of her male friends. The reception lasted almost always about as long as the performances; but it included a number of parentheses. Whenever the actress, was obliged to change her costume she would turn towards her visitors with a bewitching smile and beseeching eyes:

"Gentlemen, will you withdraw for one little moment?—not more than one little moment."

Thereupon they would all transfer themselves to the ante-room and remain there patiently waiting. No, I am mistaken, not quite all, because the youngest of them, a third year student in the School of Medicine, would avail himself of the chance to take a turn in the wings to stretch his legs and snatch a fugitive kiss or so. At all events, the majority remained, either seated or pacing up and down, until the moment when Clotilde would re-open her door and, putting out her head, decked as queen or peasant girl, according to the part she was playing, would call out:

"Now you may come back, gentlemen. Have I been very long?"

Don Jerónimo always lingered. He was the last to withdraw grumbling and the first to return to the dressing-room. He was never able to reconcile himself to that modest custom. And although he never allowed himself to say so openly, yet in the depths of his secret thoughts he regarded it as a lack of courtesy that he should be ejected from his seat, merely because the silly child must change her dress,—he, who for thirty years had passed his life behind the scenes and had been on intimate terms with every actor and actress, ancient and modern!

He was fifty-four years of age and had been attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ever since he was four-and-twenty. Each successive government had regarded him as one of the indispensable wheels in the machinery of colonial administration. Furthermore, he was a bachelor and living at the mercy of his landlady. It was said that in his youth he once wrote a play which won him nothing but hisses and free entry for life behind the scenes of the theaters. Whether resigned or not to the verdict of the public, he ceased to write plays and assumed instead the nobler rôle of patron to unrecognized authors and artists and to ruined managers.

Any youth from the provinces who arrived in Madrid with a drama in his pocket could take no surer road to seeing it produced than that which led to the home of Don Jerónimo. One and all, he received them with open arms, the good and the bad alike. There is no denying that, since he was rather brusque in his ways, he never spared the young authors who asked his advice and read him their productions, but criticized vigorously, even to the verge of insult: "This whole episode is sheer nonsense; spill your ink-well on it!" "Why, look here, for the love of heaven! How do you suppose that a man who is on the point of committing murder is going to stand there for sixteen seconds, without drawing his breath?" "Lord, what tommyrot! Platonic love for a woman of that class! You must have tumbled out of the nest unfledged, my lad!"

But anyone possessed of a little tact refused to take offense, but went calmly on and ended by intrusting his manuscript to the hands of Don Jerónimo. And he could rest assured that his drama would be produced. The veteran of the greenrooms exercised a strong influence, akin to intimidation, over managers and actors alike; when he was displeased, he gave his tongue free rein; if a play had been hissed, he would protest, boiling with rage, against the public verdict, and would continue to support the author more stanchly than ever. If on the contrary it scored a hit, he merely kept silent and smiled ecstatically, but never sought out the successful author in order to congratulate him. And if the latter should complain of his indifference, his answer was:

"Now that you have shown that you can use your wings, will you please, my friend, will you please leave me free to succor some other poor fellow?"

His private life offered little of special interest. Every night, upon leaving the theater, he betook himself to the Café Habanero, where he habitually consumed a beefsteak, together with a small measure of beer. And, according to a certain friend, who had watched him repeatedly, he always managed his repast so artfully as to finish, at one and the same time, the last mouthful of meat, the last fragment of bread, and the last draught of beer.

On this particular night the little gathering was unwontedly animated. The actress's friends indulged more freely than usual in gossip and laughter. Don Jerónimo, muffled closely in his cape (one of his privileges), lounging at ease in the big corner chair, and with his inevitable cigar between his teeth (another special privilege), was giving utterance to rare and racy stories, which from time to time caused his hearers to cast a glance in the direction of Clotilde and brought a slightly heightened color to the latter's cheeks.

Don Jerónimo himself took no notice of this; he had first known her as such a mere child that he considered he had the right to dispense with certain courtesies that are due to ladies,—assuming that in the whole course of his life he had ever shown them to any woman, which is very doubtful. He had met her first as a mere child and had opened the way for her to the stage. At the time that he ran across her, she was living wretchedly and trying to learn the art of making artificial flowers. Today, thanks to her talent, she earned enough to keep her mother and sisters in comfort.

Clotilde's attraction lay in her charm of manner rather than her beauty. Her complexion was olive, her eyes large and black, the best of all her features; her mouth somewhat big, but with bright red lips and admirably even teeth. Tonight she was costumed as a lady of the time of Louis XV, with powdered hair, which was marvelously becoming to her. She took almost no part in the conversation, but seemed satisfied to be merely a listener, constantly turning her serene gaze from one speaker to another, and often answering only with a smile when they addressed her.

All at once there came the voice of the call-boy:

"Señorita Clotilde, if you please—"

"Coming," she answered, rising.

She crossed over to the mirror, gave a few final touches to her brows and lashes with a pencil, adjusted with somewhat nervous fingers the coils of her hair, the cross of brilliants which she wore at her throat, and the folds of her dress. Her friends became for the moment silent and abstractedly watched these last preparations.

"Good-by for the present, gentlemen." And she left the dressing-room, followed by her maid, carefully bearing her train, a magnificent train of cream-colored satin.

"She grows lovelier every day, Clotilde does," said the medical student, allowing an imperceptible sigh to escape him.

Don Jerónimo took an enormous pull at his cigar, and instantly became enveloped in a cloud of smoke. For this reason no one observed the smile of triumph with which he received the medical student's remark.

"I agree with you that she grows prettier every day," said another of the visitors. "But it seems to me that her disposition has been undergoing a big change for some time back. You, my boy, have not known her as long as we have. She used to be a fascinating talker, so merry, so full of spirits! No one could ever remain out of temper in her company. But now I find her grave and sad almost all the time."

"It's a fact that I have wondered at the melancholy look in her eyes."

Don Jerónimo took another enormous pull at his cigar. No one saw the swift flare of anger that passed over his face.

"Changes like that, my boy, have only one cause, and that is love."

"Was she engaged?"

"Precisely,—Don Jerónimo knows the story well."

"Yes, and I am going to tell it to you," said the one referred to, from the depths of his cloak. "Though you may believe me that it is no pleasant task to relate such follies. But it concerns a girl whom we all of us love, and whatever affects her ought to interest us.

"Some three years ago a young man, faultlessly dressed and with the manuscript of a play under his arm, called upon the director of this theater. Now there is nothing in the world more impressive and awe-inspiring than a well-dressed young man who carries the manuscript of a play under his arm. The director did his best to dodge him, and held him off with a number of adroit moves; but he was finally cornered, all the same. In other words, the young man invited him to breakfast one day, enticing him with the seductive prospect of several dozen oysters, washed down with abundant Sauterne, and for dessert he shot off his play at close range.

"As it turned out, the play was no good. Pepe did what you know one does in such cases: he expressed deep admiration for the versification, he said 'bravo!' over certain obscurely phrased thoughts, and finally he recommended a few changes in the second act, after which the work would be unexceptionable.

"The unwary poet returned home greatly pleased, and set to work zealously upon the revision. At the end of a fortnight he returned for another interview with Pepe; this time the latter found the first act somewhat slow, and advised him at any cost to put more action into it and make it somewhat shorter. It took the poet a month to rewrite the first act. When he once more presented himself, the director, while expressing great admiration for the excellence of the verse and for some of the ideas, manifested some doubt as to whether the play was actable. That it was literary, he had none whatever; on the contrary, it seemed to him that from this point of view it compared favorably with the best of Ayala's plays,—but actable, really actable, ah! that was another matter!"

"What is the difference, Don Jerónimo? I don't understand."

"Then I will explain, my boy. We, who are behind the scenes, mean by actable a good play, and by literary a bad one."

"I see!"

"After expressing these doubts, the manager concluded by recommending certain additional alterations in the third act.

"At last the poet understood,—a really marvelous occurrence, because poets, who understand everything else and can tell you why the condor flies so high, who soar to the skies and descend into the abyss and penetrate the secret thoughts of all created things, are not capable of realizing that there are times when their works do not please those who hear them. Our young man, whom we will call Inocencio, received back his manuscript somewhat peevishly, and for a while nothing further was heard of him. But at last, doubtless after a good deal of profound meditation, he presented himself on a certain morning at the home of Clotilde. I hardly need tell you that he carried his manuscript under his arm.

"He waited patiently in the parlor while our young friend completed her toilet, and when at last she made her appearance, she saw before her a blushing and confused young man, who nevertheless was pleasant-mannered and fashionably dressed, and who besought with stammering lips that she would do him the favor of listening while he read his play. Women, you must know, find a singular pleasure in playing the rôle of patroness, especially in regard to young men of pleasant manners and fashionable dress. So that it is not at all surprising that Clotilde listened patiently to the play and even pronounced it acceptable.

"The young man intrusted himself wholly to her guidance, deposited his manuscript in her pretty hands, as though it were a new-born child, and she received it like a doting mother, took it under her protection, and promised to watch over its precious existence and introduce it to the world. The young man declared that such an intention was worthy of the noble heart whose fame had already reached his ears. Clotilde replied that it was no kindness on her part to work to have the play produced, but only an act of justice. The young man said that this idea was exceedingly flattering, because Clotilde's great talent and the accuracy of her judgments were well known to everyone, but that he dared not build upon such an illusion. Clotilde declared that there were many unmerited reputations in the world, and one of them was hers, but that on this occasion she felt that she was on firm ground.

"The young man replied that when the river roars the water toils, and that when the whole world unites in admiring not only the exceptional beauty and artistic inspiration of a certain person, but also her splendid genius and brilliant intellect, it was necessary to bow one's head. Clotilde said that on this occasion she refused to bow hers, because she was quite convinced that the world was greatly mistaken regarding what it called her talent, which was nothing more nor less than pure instinct. The young man cried out to heaven against such mystification, for which there was absolutely no excuse. Then, promptly calming down, he declared himself profoundly moved by the modesty of his patroness, and swore by all the saints in heaven that he never had met her equal,—with the result that the manuscript was momentarily gaining ground in the heart of our sympathetic friend, and that the young man, overwhelmed with emotion, took his leave of her until the following day.

"On the following day, Clotilde called upon the manager, and by threatening to break her contract, forced from him a promise to produce Inocencio's play as soon as possible. That same afternoon, the poet expressed his thanks to his patroness and promptly took her into his confidence. He belonged to a distinguished provincial family, although without great financial resources. It was in the hope of bettering them that he had come to Madrid, relying solely upon his genius. In his native town they said that he had talent, and that if the verses which he had contributed to the Tagus Echo had been published in Madrid, he would be talked of as a second Nuñez de Arce y Grilo. He did not know whether that was so; but he felt that his heart was full of noble sentiments, and he loved the theater better than the apple of his eye. Would he succeed in being an Ayala or a Tamayo? Would he be rejected by the public? It was an insoluble mystery to him.

"During this interview, Clotilde became convinced of two very important things: namely, that Inocencio possessed a talent so great that his head could scarcely hold it, and secondly, that there was no one else in all Madrid who could wear so conspicuous a necktie with such charming effect. I need not tell you that their confidential interviews increased in frequency, and that consequently Clotilde came day by day more completely under the fascinating influence of that supernatural necktie. In the end, she yielded herself vanquished, and surrendered herself to it, bound hand and foot. The necktie deigned to raise her from the ground and grant her the favor of its affection."

"What about a necktie?" asked one of the company, who had been nodding.

Don Jerónimo took an immense, an infernal pull at his cigar, in testimony of his annoyance, then proceeded with no further notice:

"Meanwhile the rehearsals of Inocencio's play had begun. It was called, if I am not mistaken, Stooping to Conquer,—excuse me, no, I believe it was just the reverse, Conquering to Stoop. Well, at all events, it contained a participle and an infinitive. Before long I became aware that lover-like relations had been established between our fair friend and the author, and since, as a matter of fact, even if Inocencio was a bad poet, as Pepe insisted, he seemed like a good lad, I was very glad it had happened and I helped it along as much as I could. Clotilde confided in me, and declared that she was desperately in love; that her ambitions no longer had anything to do with the art of the stage, which seemed to her an unbearable slavery; that her ideal was to live tranquilly, even if it were in a garret, united to the man whom she adored; that woman was born to be the guardian angel of the fireside, and not to divert the public, and that she herself would rather be queen of a humble little apartment illuminated with love, than to receive all the applause in the world. In short, gentlemen, our young friend was living in the midst of an idyllic dream.

"Inocencio was, to all appearance, no less in love than she. I frequently encountered them walking through the unfrequented by-paths of the Retiro, at a respectable distance from her mother, who lingered opportunely to examine the first opening buds of flowers or some curious insect. Mothers, at this critical period of courtship, are under an obligation to be admirers of the works of nature. The young pair of turtle-doves would pause when they caught sight of me and greet me blushingly. I cannot conceal from you that, however much I felt the loss to art, I was delighted that Clotilde was going to be married. A woman always needs the protection of a man. And there is no question that so far as outward appearance went, they were worthy of one another. Inocencio certainly was a most attractive young fellow.

"At the theater they talked of nothing else than of this wedding, which was still in the bud. Everybody was delighted, because Clotilde is the only actress, since the beginning of the world, who took it into her head to attempt what until now was regarded as impossible, to make herself beloved by her companions.

"I observed, nevertheless,—for you know that I am an observant person: it is the only quality that I possess, that of observation, a thing to which the authors of today attach no importance. Today, in the drama, everything is so much dried leaves, a lot of moonshine, which, they let filter down through the foliage of the trees, a lot of description of dawn and twilight, and a lot of other similar pastry-shop stuff. That's all there is to it! When any fledgling author comes to me with nonsense of that sort, I say to him: 'Get down to the facts! Get down to the facts!' The facts are the drama, which doesn't exist in the great part of the above-mentioned."

"Aren't you exciting yourself, Don Jerónimo?"

"Well, as I was telling you, I observed that as the rehearsals progressed the ascendency of Inocencio over our young friend increased. The tone in which he addressed her was no longer the humble and courteous tone of earlier days; he corrected her frequently in her manner of delivery, he dictated the attitudes and gestures which she should adopt, and sometimes, when the actress did not quite understand his wishes, he allowed himself to address her publicly in rather severe terms, and the way he looked at her was severer still. Our poet was already thundering and lightning like a true lord and master.

"Clotilde accepted it with good grace. She, who had always been so haughty, even towards the most distinguished authors, stretched out and shrank back like soft wax in the hands of that insignificant jackanapes. You ought to have seen the humility with which she accepted his suggestions, and the distress which his censures caused her. All the time that the rehearsal lasted she kept her eyes steadily fixed upon him, watching like a submissive slave to catch the wishes of her master. The poet, lolling at ease in an arm-chair, with a brazier of hot coals before him, directed the action in as dictatorial a manner as either Gracia Gutierrez or Ayala could have done. A mere glance from him sufficed to make Clotilde flush crimson or turn pale. The other actors made no protest, out of consideration for her. When she had finished her scene she came eagerly to take her seat beside her betrothed, who sometimes deigned to welcome her with a haughty smile, and at other times with an Olympian indifference. I, meanwhile, looked on, scandalized.

"On one occasion I came upon them from behind, and overheard what they were saying. Clotilde was speaking, and hotly maintaining that Inocencio's Stooping to Conquer or Conquering to Stoop was better than A New Drama. The young man protested feebly. On another occasion they were speaking of their future union. Clotilde was picturing in impassioned phrases the nook to which they would go to hide their happiness; some lofty spot on the hills of Salamanca, a dear little nest, bathed in sunlight, where Inocencio could work in his private study, writing plays, while she sat by his side and embroidered in absolute silence. When he was tired they could talk for a while, to let him rest, and then she would give him a kiss and go back again to her work. In the evening they would go out, arm in arm, to take a short walk, and then home again. But no more of the theater; she abhorred it with all her soul. In the spring they would go every morning to take a walk in the Retiro and take chocolate under the trees; in the summer they would spend a month or two in Inocencio's birthplace, so as to bring back from the country a supply of good color and health for the coming winter.

"The description of this tender idyl, which, even if I am a confirmed bachelor, set my heart beating within my breast, produced no other effect upon the new author than an insolent somnolence which would not disappear until he suddenly raised his imperious voice to admonish some one of the actors.

"At last the opening night arrived. We were all anxious to see the result. The prevailing opinion was that the play offered little novelty; but since Clotilde had staked her whole soul upon the outcome, a big success was predicted. At the dress rehearsal our young friend had achieved genuine prodigies. There was a moment when the few of us whom curiosity had brought to witness it, rose to our feet electrified, convulsed, making a most unseemly outcry. You have no conception how marvelously she rendered her part. Then and there, all of a sudden, an idea entered my head. Recalling all my observations of Clotilde's love affair, I felt convinced, in view of the evidence, that Inocencio had had no other purpose in winning her love than to assure an exceptional interpretation of the leading rôle of his play, and a flattering outcome of his venture. I decided not to communicate my suspicions to anyone. I kept silent and hoped, but there is no doubt that from that time on the young man was decidedly out of favor with me.

"The noise which Inocencio's friends had been making in regard to the theme of his play, the fact that Clotilde had chosen it for her benefit performance, and the wide-spread rumor that the celebrated actress was going to win a signal triumph in it, all worked together to help the speculators to dispose of every seat in the house at fabulous prices. I know a marquis who paid eleven duros for two orchestra stalls. This room where we are now sitting was filled, just as it is annually, with flowers and presents; it was impossible to move about in the midst of such a conglomeration of porcelain, books with costly bindings, ebony work-boxes, picture-frames, and no end of other fancy trifles.

"The audience room was unusually brilliant. The most resplendent ladies, the men most distinguished in politics, literature, and finance; in short, the high life, as the phrase goes, was all there. But even more brilliant and more radiant was Inocencio himself; radiant with glory and happiness, and graciously receiving the crowds of visitors who came to see the presents, dictating orders to the call-boys and scene-shifters regarding the proper setting of the scene, and multiplying his smiles and hand-shakings to the point of infinity. Clotilde also seemed more beautiful than ever, and her expressive face revealed the tender emotion which possessed her, as well as her deep anxiety to win laurels for her future husband.

"The curtain arose and everyone hurried to occupy his seat. In the wings there was no one save the author and three or four of his friends. The opening scenes were received as usual with indifference; the following ones with a little more cordiality; the versification was fluent and polished, and, as you know, the public appreciates sugar-coated phrases. At last the moment arrived for Clotilde's entrance, and a faint murmur of curiosity and expectation ran through the audience. She spoke her lines discreetly, but without much warmth; it was easy to see that she was afraid. The curtain fell in a dead silence.

"Immediately the waiting-room and passage-way were filled by Inocencio's friends, who came eagerly to tell him that this first performance of his play was a great success,—but what was the matter with Clotilde? She hardly put any movement into her part,—and she was usually so much alive, so tremendously forceful! Our young friend acknowledged that, as a matter of fact, she had felt badly scared, and that this had hampered her seriously. The author, greatly alarmed for the fate of his work, endeavored to persuade her that there was nothing to be afraid of, that all she had to do was to be herself, and that she was not to think of him at all while she spoke her lines.

"'I can't help it,' insisted Clotilde, 'all the time that I am speaking I keep thinking that you are the author, and imagining that the play is not going to succeed, and it makes me so frightened.'

"Inocencio was in despair; he tried entreaties, advice, arguments, he embraced her without caring who saw him; he tried to infuse courage into her by appealing to her vanity as an artist; in short, he did everything imaginable to save his play.

"The second act began. Clotilde had a few pathetic scenes. In the beginning there was a certain slight disturbance in the audience, and this sufficed to disconcert her completely, and to make her acting irremediably bad, worse than she had ever acted in her whole life. A good deal of coughing was heard, and some loud murmurs of impatience. At the end of that second act a few indiscreet friends tried to applaud, but the audience drowned them out with an immense and terrifying series of hisses. The author, who was standing by my side, pale as death, relieved his feelings with a flood of coarse words, and made his way to Pepe's room, which faces that of Clotilde, and where his friends consoled him, casting the whole blame for the failure upon her, and inflaming more and more the anger surging in his heart. Meanwhile, our friend was utterly crushed and overcome, and continually calling for her Inocencio. In order to spare her further trouble, I told her that the author had accepted the situation resignedly, and had left the theater to get a breath of air. The unhappy girl bitterly blamed herself, taking the entire failure on her own shoulders.

"The curtain rose for the third act; and we all gathered anxiously at the wings. Clotilde, by a powerful effort of will, showed herself at first more self-possessed than in the previous acts, but the audience was in a mood to have some sport, and nothing could have made them take the play seriously. When the public once scents a trail, it is like a wild beast that smells blood; there is no way of heading it off, and you have got to let it have its flesh at any cost. And there is no doubt that on this occasion it gorged itself full. Coughs, laughter, sneezes, stampings, hisses,—there was a little of everything. Tears sprang to our poor friend's eyes, and she seemed upon the point of fainting. When the curtain finally fell her eyes sought on all sides for her lover, but he had disappeared. In her dressing-room, where I followed her, she sobbed, groaned, gave way to despair, called herself a fool, said that she was going to hire herself out on some farm to tend the geese and more to the same effect. It cost me some hard work to calm her down, but at last I succeeded so that she sank into a sort of silent lethargy. In the sorrow which her eyes revealed I saw that what tormented her horribly was the absence of Inocencio.

"The door of the room was suddenly flung open. The defeated poet made his appearance; he was quite pale but apparently calm. Nevertheless, I perceived at the first glance that his calmness was assumed, and that the smile which contracted his lips closely resembled that of a condemned man who wishes to die bravely.

"A gleam of joy illuminated Clotilde's face. She rose swiftly and flung her arms around his neck, saying in a broken voice:

"'I have ruined you, my poor Inocencio, I have ruined you! How generous you are! But listen, I swear to you, by the memory of my father, that I will atone for the humiliation you have just suffered.'

"'There is no need for you to atone, my dear girl,' replied the poet, in a soft tone under which a disdainful anger could be felt, 'my family has not achieved its illustrious name through the intercession of any actor. From this day henceforth I gladly renounce the theater and all that is connected with it. Accordingly,—I wish you good-day.' And, unclasping the arms that imprisoned his neck, and smiling sarcastically, he retreated a few steps and took his leave. Clotilde gazed at him in a stupor, then fell unconscious on the divan.

"At the sight of her in such a state I felt my blood take fire, and I followed the young man out. I overtook him near the stairs, and, grasping him by the wrist, I said to him:

"'A word with you. The first thing that a man has to be, before he can be a poet, is a gentleman,—and that is something you are not. Your play was hissed because it lacks the same thing that you lack,—and that is a heart. Here, sir, is my card.'"

"And did you not send him your seconds, Don Jerónimo?" inquired the medical student.

"Silence, silence!" exclaimed another of the group, "here is Clotilde."

And, in fact, the charming actress at that moment appeared in the doorway, and her large and sad black eyes, all the more beautiful beneath her white Louis XV coiffure, smiled tenderly upon her faithful friends.