It is the evening of the theatricals; and in one of the larger drawing-rooms at the castle, where the stage has been erected, and also in another room behind connected with it by folding-doors, everybody of note in the county is already assembled. Fans are fluttering—so are many hearts behind the scenes—and a low buzz of conversation is being carried on among the company.
Then the curtain rises; the fans stop rustling, the conversation ceases, and all faces turn curiously to the small but perfect stage that the London workmen have erected.
Every one is very anxious to see what his or her neighbor is going to do when brought before a critical audience. Nobody, of course, hopes openly for a break-down, but secretly there are a few who would be glad to see such-and-such a one’s pride lowered.
No mischance, however, occurs. The insipid Tony speaks his lines perfectly, if he fails to grasp the idea that a little acting thrown in would be an improvement; a very charming Cousin Con is made out of Miss Villiers; a rather stilted but strictly correct old lady out of Lady Gertrude Vining. But Florence Delmaine, as Kate Hardcastle, leaves nothing to be desired, and many are the complimentary speeches uttered from time to time by the audience. Arthur Dynecourt too had not overpraised his own powers. It is palpable to every one that he has often trod the boards, and the pathos he throws into his performance astonishes the audience. Is it only acting in the final scene when he makes love to Miss Hardcastle, or is there some real sentiment in it?
This question arises in many breasts. They note how his color changes as he takes her hand, how his voice trembles; they notice too how she grows cold, in spite of her desire to carry out her part to the end, as he grows warmer, and how instinctively she shrinks from his touch. Then it is all over, and the curtain falls amidst loud applause. Florence comes before the curtain in response to frequent calls, gracefully, half reluctantly, with a soft warm blush upon her cheeks and a light in her eyes that renders her remarkable loveliness only more apparent. Sir Adrian, watching her with a heart faint and cold with grief and disappointment, acknowledges sadly to himself that never has he seen her look so beautiful. She advances and bows to the audience, and only loses her self-possession a very little when a bouquet directed at her feet by an enthusiastic young man alights upon her shoulder instead.
Arthur Dynecourt, who has accompanied her to the footlights, and who joins in her triumph, picks up the bouquet and presents it to her.
As he does so the audience again become aware that she receives it from him in a spirit that suggests detestation of the one that hands it, and that her smile withers as she does so, and her great eyes lose their happy light of a moment before.