MR. ACTING DIRECTOR SWEEL
In a moment they found themselves, as it were, in the presence of the arbiter of their fates. Ione the independent put it thus to herself, for Keith seemed to her already almost like a brother. She felt in her heart that she could trust him to the outer edge of Time — and beyond. Was he not somehow different from every one else?
The chief director of the International College of Dramatic Art proved to be a tall, thin, scholarly-looking man, with eyes which might have been fine if they had not been concealed by glasses of an aggressively round shape, dark green in colour. As he turned his face towards Ione, his aquiline nose protruded between the circles like a cow-catcher between the twin side-lights of her native locomotive. In another moment, however, she had grown conscious of a particularly cool and keen regard, which pierced her through and through as if to discover whether the sacred fire was alight in her bosom, and exactly in which spot it burned brightest.
"You are an emotional. Miss March!" announced the director, as the result of this prolonged inspection. They were the first words he had spoken after the first words of introduction.
"I — I beg your pardon," said Ione. "I don't think I quite understand. I came here with Mr. Keith Harford. I merely thought of joining the college as a pupil."
The director turned the circles of his green deadlights upon Keith inquiringly. His expression became distinctly less agreeable. He seemed to write off thirty guineas from some mental ledger.
"I think, sir," said Keith, "that you and I have had some correspondence. You engaged me to succeed Mr. Wobbleigh Cavendish in lecturing upon Shakespeare and the classical - "
"My dear Professor Harford — so I did! I have been looking out eagerly for you all the morning. Your class is waiting for you. Pray come this way."
And the director opened a door on the left, through which strange irregular noises had been proceeding. A range of hacked wooden benches was revealed surrounding a kind of circular well, in the midst of which two young gentlemen were having a tremendous combat with wooden broad-swords, while several others were seated on the backs of the benches, or leaned over them as from the gallery of a theatre. These last were smoking cigarettes and encouraging the combatants with shouts of "Well played, Macduff! Wipe the floor with him, Macbeth!"
"The professor of Fence having temporarily resigned," said the director, as soon as he could obtain a hearing, "the pupils were practising till your arrival. I will now deliver them into your capable charge."
But it was the Shakespeare class which I undertook to teach," said Keith, much puzzled.
The director seemed saddened and disappointed, and passed his hand wearily over his brow, as if the vagaries of professors at a pound a week were really too much for him. But he did not give up.
"It is the same thing," he said suavely, "or, at least, may be considered almost identical. This is, if I mistake not, a Shakespearean combat. It represents a well-known scene from — ah! the celebrated play of Macbeth. From your Christian name or prӕnomen, I presume you are a Scotchman. You will therefore be peculiarly fitted for demonstrating that true inwardness of the passage to your class. Gentlemen, let me introduce to you Professor Harford, your new instructor!"
And with that he bowed and got out as quickly as possible, leaving Keith alone with this somewhat casual and exceedingly unceremonious band of "students."
"My dear young lady," said the director, breathing a sigh of relief as soon as he had disposed of Keith, "you wish to join the college. You are, as I said before, an emotional, though you may not be conscious of your mètier. And permit me to say that you could not have come to a better place to develop and prune — yes, prune is the word — the luxuriance of your talent. Without doubt, when you have the rough edges a little rubbed down, when the diamond of your genius is polished and set, if you will permit me so to speak, it will be ready to shine resplendently in its own proper sphere."
He bowed again, and Ione was quite grateful for the momentary relief. It took the full-orbed glare of the green "caution" lights off her for a moment, and turned them blightingly on the carpet — which, however, seemed to have suffered severely from them in former times, to judge by its present mangy and threadbare condition.
"And now, my dear young lady," he continued, fixing her again as the glasses came to the "present," "I do not wish to take your money till you thoroughly understand our position.
"Our staff of instructors is at present most unfortunately somewhat incomplete. But those professors who have left are really of no importance, being only those of a second-class order. Besides, as you know from the recent appointment of your friend, we are as rapidly as possible filling up the vacancies. Still, I tell you this now in order to prevent future disappointment."
Mr. Augustus Clarence Sweel (his name was printed plainly both over the door of the sanctum and in large letters on the prospectus) next handed Ione a paper to fill up, in which she was asked to agree to all manner of rules and restrictions. These she passed over with a glance. If she were going through with the thing at all, she was prepared to put herself under discipline. But a paragraph towards the foot of the paper, printed in strong, black, Clarendon type to attract attention, caught her eye, and she gazed at it with horror. Thus it stood like a five-barred gate across her path to distinction.
"Regulation 17. Every student of the College must, before acceptance and enrolment, be strongly recommended by two prominent citizens, or by one Member of Parliament."
"Some such course," said Mr. Augustus Sweel gravely, "we find most necessary, as the very limited space at our disposal in the college compels us severely to restrict the number of our entrants."
Involuntarily a little sigh escaped Ione.
"Then," she said, "I am afraid it will not be possible for me to become a student with you, because I am a stranger in London, and certainly do not know two prominent citizens, nor yet so much as one Member of Parliament."
Mr. Augustus Sweel looked infinitely distressed.
"It does seem a pity," he mused; "and one so young and talented! But let me see; let me see. Perhaps, if we kept the matter very quiet, it might be managed."
Ione gave him a grateful look, which was stopped point-blank by the green dead-lights. As the College of Dramatic Art seemed shutting its doors upon her, the girl realised how high were the hopes which she had been building upon it.
"At any rate," continued Mr. Sweel, "I will consult our lady superintendent, and see if we cannot arrange the matter without publicity. For I see clearly that if you had a chance, you would do credit both to yourself and to us."
Ione fairly blushed with pleasure, marvelling also at Mr. Sweel's insight into character.
When he left the room she felt that she had already made a great stride towards success in her future profession. But, after five minutes of sobering solitude, she began to wish that she had had the courage to ask Mr. Sweel what were the branches of study which had been closed to her by the premature departure of the instructors.
On her way to the college she had resolved to be so exceedingly business-like, to make such strict inquiries as to the exact course of study to be followed, and the percentage of good and lucrative engagements obtained by graduates at the close of the college term. And lo! here she was, without a single question asked, fairly hanging upon the verdict of Mr. Sweel and upon that of an unknown and probably hostile lady superintendent, while the precious thirty pounds—three-fourths of her whole available resources — were literally burning holes in her pocket.
In ten minutes Mr. Sweel returned and said that he was most happy to inform Miss March that his committee had resolved, upon his initiative, and, he might say, guarantee, to waive the recommendation clause in her favour; but she must on no account allow the fact to leak out in the college or elsewhere, as others less fortunate might consider that an injustice had been done to them by her irregular admission.
With an eager beating heart Ione agreed to everything without a word of question, and in a moment more she had signed half a dozen necessary papers. Her purse was in her hands, out of which she told one by one the thirty golden sovereigns, receiving in return a matriculation card, with the arms of the college printed in gold at the top, and, in addition, a proud internal consciousness that she was already well up the ladder of fame.
"Now," said Mr. Sweel, somewhat moderating his tone of suave flattery as soon as the chinking pieces had changed hands, "we will, if you please, proceed at once to the theatre, and there you may join the class of practical training which is at present going on under Professor Claudius Roscoe. To-morrow I will arrange what course of study it will benefit you most to pursue, and what line of dramatic art you ought to take up."
They passed into a larger room, the upper end of which consisted of a raised platform, on which a couple of youths and two or three girls were countermarching and gesticulating. The girls were dressed with a show of cheap finery. Their hair was so much banged and befrizzled that what remained of it looked as parched and wiry as the bushy parts of a poodle. The young men generally presented a loose-jointed, out-at-elbows appearance, and Ione could not help vaguely wondering whether it was because of the burning of the sacred lamp of genius, or because they could not afford the luxury of a barber, that they wore their hair so particularly long, lank, and turned up at the ends.
In the middle of the platform a stout little man, of a distinctly Jewish cast of features, was standing brandishing a chair and looking wildly excited.
The entrance of Mr. Sweel with Ione prevented the continuance of whatever remarks the little man was about to punctuate with the chair, to the evident relief of the group on the platform.
"Miss March — Professor Roscoe," said the director with a bland smile. "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss March, your latest fellow-student, in whose bosom the sacred - "
But at this moment Mr. Sweel was interrupted by a tremendous burst of applause from the room into which Keith Harford had disappeared. The conclusion of the director's peroration, which, however, was obviously well known to the students, is therefore lost to humanity.
"I leave Miss March in your hands," he went on, as with an obvious lack of ease he edged himself towards the door, "and I am sure one of the ladies will be good enough to take charge of our new friend after the lesson is finished. I have not yet decided what precise direction Miss March's studies are to take."
After Mr. Sweel had vanished, Ione stood looking on, and feeling distinctly forlorn and friendless. But at least it was a comfort to think that Keith Harford was in the next room. Professor Roscoe's interrupted lesson proceeded, and in a little while Ione grew interested and amused to hear the frenzied accents in which one of the towsy-headed girls implored a certain extremely stolid hero to "forgive her," while that Spartan youth leaned in a severely classical and reposeful manner upon a painted mantelpiece. From this his elbow continually slipped as he became every moment more and more nobly unapproachable and unresponsively dignified. On the whole it struck Ione how much more thoroughly the girls were able to forget themselves and throw themselves into their parts than the men, who, without exception, walked and spoke as if operated by hidden clockwork. Yet it was not without a secret thrill of anxiety that she thought how, perhaps in a few minutes, she herself might be called upon to face the critical eyes of her fellow-students.
But for the present she was spared this ordeal. The lesson was, in fact, almost over, and at its close the girls came over to Ione in a body, and with the heartiest good-will in the world, offered to "see her through."
Meanwhile Mr. Roscoe was addressing some final scathing remarks to the young men before departing. These seemed to be to the effect that every man-jack of them might just as well have been blocked out of wood and finished with a face of putty, for all the use he could make of either limbs or features in order to express emotion.
"If there's an ounce of brains divided among this whole class, I'll — I’ll eat my hat!" was his final summing up, as the fiery little professor slammed the door.
"And a very greasy meal you'd have of it," said one of the girls. "No, it's a shame; I won't say a word against him. Little Roscoe's the only decent man about the place. There's a new man here to-day, though — dark, and awfully handsome; but Sweel has turned him on to the Fencing and Shakespeare, instead of old Wobbleigh Cavendish. He may be no end of a swell at explaining the illustrious William, but I doubt if he knows the inside of a theatre when he sees one."
As the girls came forward to talk to Ione, the youths one by one somewhat reluctantly left the room, casting envious glances across at the graceful figure of the new pupil, which certainly contrasted with the frowsy commonplace blonde good looks of her seniors in college standing.
"Now, if you like, I’ll take you round and expound the wiles and deceits of old Green Deadlights," said a dark heavily-built girl, who was addressed as Snowdrop Rogers by her companions, but whose imperious carriage and piercing black eyes were certainly far from suggesting that modest blossom of spring.
"Don't you go with her, Miss March. Oh, what is your first name? We can't be 'Miss'-ing each other all day in this abode of the dead. We've got too much to put up with in other ways. 'Ione'? What a pretty name! Is it a given name or a stage name? Really! Well, don't you get yourself taken round by Snowdrop Rogers. All she wants is to sneak you into a quiet corner and spout Lady Macbeth at you!"
"Oh, but," said Ione cheerfully, "I can do that too, as well as the next man. I would just spout Lady Macbeth back again till she dropped, if she tried that on a stranger. Now, I warn you, Snowdrop Rogers. On your life be it!"
"But you don't look the part, my dear, and I do," objected Snowdrop; "you're much too slim, and your nose - "
"Now then, out of the way, Sairey Siddons!" cried a bright, merry-voiced little girl. "Don't you go gorying and knifing people all over the place! 'Out, hanged spot,' or I’ll fetch some Sunlight Soap to you! How glad I am that I haven't got to weep all over the stage! I'm going to be a soubrette — yes, indeed, every time, deary! And I'm nothing wonderful of a genius, either. There's Lavinia Starr, though — she is one, if you like. Why, she can say the alphabet fit to make a stone cry, or even an actor-manager! Come on — do it for us now, Lavinia!"
"Oh do!" cried Ione, somewhat excited by her strange environments. "I can't a bit think what you mean."
Whereupon Miss Starr, being "boosted" up on to the deserted platform by the willing arms of her sister aspirants, proceeded to address the tables and chairs in soul-moving and harrowing accents. Yet, though she used only the letters of the alphabet in their proper order, Ione began to see a whole domestic tragedy growing out of the idiotic nonsense, and ere she had reached the letter Z for the third time, Lavinia Starr had hushed the noisy group of girls into a kind of wondering silence.
“There isn't another girl in the school can do that," whispered Snowdrop. "But Mr. Sweel doesn't like Lavinia, and always casts her for low comedy servants, and the stupidest character parts, where she looks a fright. Sweel doesn't know enough to come in when it rains, anyway — though he has had the cleverness to rope us all in and get our good money just for nothing. I say, though, what in the world possessed you to join right at the fag end of the term — when there's hardly a decent teacher left, and about all the good you’ll ever get is the liberty of tramping this rickety old stage here?"
"But," faltered Ione, a little buzzing trouble coming into her ears, "the prospectus said — and Mr. Harford - "
"I don't know Mr. Harford," broke in Lavinia Starr sharply; "but the old prospectus is all lies, anyway. It promises a lot, I know — more than you and I will ever see. We've all been pretty well done, that's a fact; but we can't help it, and kicking doesn't do any good. So we just make the best of it, and help each other all we can by working out scenes together."
By this time Ione's heart was in her boots; but she remembered the section about the emulous managers who, at the close of the college session, were positively falling over each other in their anxiety to offer distinguished positions to the graduates of the International College.
Timidly she hazarded a leading question on the subject. The girls unanimously laughed the short, bitter laugh of scorn.
"Well," said one, "you take my word for it, Ione March, when you go on the hunt for an engagement, the more profoundly in the gloom of the background you keep the International College of Dramatic Art, the more likely you are to sign papers. Isn't that so, girls?"
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.