Read CHAPTER II of Muslin, free online book, by George Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

It was a large room with six windows; these had been covered over with red cloth, and the wall opposite was decorated with plates, flowers, and wreaths woven out of branches of ilex and holly.

Chairs for the visitors had been arranged in a semicircle around the Bishop’s throne ­a great square chair approached by steps, and rendered still more imposing by the canopy, whose voluminous folds fell on either side like those of a corpulent woman’s dress.  Opposite was the stage.  The footlights were turned down, but the blue mountains and brown palm-trees of the drop-curtain, painted by one of the nuns, loomed through the red obscurity of the room.  Benches had been set along the walls.  Between them a strip of carpet, worked with roses and lilies, down which the girls advanced when called to receive their prizes, stretched its blue and slender length.

‘His Grace is coming!’ a nun cried, running in, and instantly the babbling of voices ceased, and four girls hastened to the pianos placed on either side of the stage, two left-hands struck a series of chords in the bass, the treble notes replied, and, to the gallant measure of a French polka, a stately prelate entered, smiling benediction as he advanced, the soft clapping of feminine palms drowning, for a moment, the slangy strains of the polka.

When the Bishop was seated on his high throne, the back of which extended some feet above his head, and as soon as the crowd of visitors had been accommodated with chairs around him, a nun made her way through the room, seeking anxiously among the girls.  She carried in her hand a basket filled with programmes, all rolled and neatly tied with pieces of different coloured ribbon.  These she distributed to the ten tiniest little children she could find, and, advancing five from either side, they formed in a line and curtsied to the Bishop.  One little dot, whose hair hung about her head like a golden mist, nearly lost her balance; she was, however, saved from falling by a companion, and then, like a group of kittens, they tripped down the strip of blue carpet and handed the programmes to the guests, who leaned forward as if anxious to touch their hands, to stroke their shining hair.

The play was now ready to begin, and Alice felt she was going from hot to cold, for when the announcement printed on the programme, that she was the author of the comedy of King Cophetua had been read, all eyes were fixed upon her; the Bishop, after eyeing her intently, bent towards the Reverend Mother and whispered to her.  Cecilia clasped Alice’s hand and said:  ‘You must not be afraid, dear; I know it will be all right.’

And the little play was as charming as it was guileless.  The old legend had been arranged ­as might have been expected from a schoolgirl ­simply and unaffectedly.  The scene opened in a room in the palace of the King, and when a chorus, supposed to be sung by the townspeople, was over, a Minister entered hurriedly.  The little children uttered a cry of delight; they did not recognize their companion in her strange disguise.  A large wig, with brown curls hanging over the shoulders, almost hid the face, that had been made to look quite aged by a few clever touches of the pencil about the eyes and mouth.  She was dressed in a long garment, something between an ulster and a dressing-gown.  It fell just below her knees, for it had been decided by the Reverend Mother that it were better that there should be a slight display of ankles than the least suspicion of trousers.  The subject was a delicate one, and for some weeks past a look of alarm had not left the face of the nun in charge of the wardrobe.  But these considerations only amused the girls, and now, delighted at the novelty of her garments, the Minister strutted about the stage complaining of the temper of the Dowager Queen.  ’Who could help it if the King wouldn’t marry?  Who could make him leave his poetry and music for a pretty face if he didn’t care to do so?  He had already refused blue eyes, black eyes, brown eyes.  However, the new Princess was a very beautiful person, and ought, all things considered, to be accepted by the King.  She must be passing through the city at the moment.’

On this the Queen entered.  The first words she spoke were inaudible, but, gathering courage, she trailed her white satin, with its large brocaded pattern, in true queenly fashion, and questioned the Minister as to his opinion of the looks of the new Princess.  But she gave no point to her words.  The scene was, fortunately, a short one, and no sooner had they disappeared than a young man entered.  He held a lute in his left hand, and with his right he twanged the strings idly.  He was King Cophetua, and many times during rehearsal Alice had warned May that her reading of the character was not right; but May did not seem able to accommodate herself to the author’s view of the character, and, after a few minutes, fell back into her old swagger; and now, excited by the presence of an audience, by the footlights, by the long coat under which she knew her large, well-shaped legs could be seen, she forgot her promises, and strolled about like a man, as she had seen young Scully saunter about the stable-yard at home.  She looked, no doubt, very handsome, and, conscious of the fact, she addressed her speeches to a group of young men, who, for no ostensible reason except to get as far away as possible from the Bishop, had crowded into the left-hand corner of the hall.

And so great was May’s misreading of the character, that Alice could hardly realize that she was listening to her own play.  Instead of speaking the sentence, ’My dear mother, I could not marry anyone I did not love; besides, am I not already wedded to music and poetry?’ slowly, dreamily, May emphasized the words so jauntily, that they seemed to be poetic equivalents for wine and tobacco.  There was no doubt that things were going too far; the Reverend Mother frowned, and shifted her position in her chair uneasily; the Bishop crossed his legs and took snuff methodically.

But at this moment the attention of the audience was diverted by the entrance of the Princess.  May’s misbehaviour was forgotten, and a murmur of admiration rose through the red twilight.  Dressed in a tight-fitting gown of pale blue, opening in front, and finishing in a train held up by the smallest child in the school, Olive moved across the stage like a beautiful bird.  Taking a wreath of white roses from her hair, she presented them to the King.  He had then to kiss her hand, and lead her to a chair.  In the scene that followed, Alice had striven to be intensely pathetic.  She had intended that the King, by a series of kindly put questions, should gradually win the Princess’s confidence, and induce her to tell the truth ­that her affections had already been won by a knight at her father’s Court; that she could love none other.

KING.  But if this knight did not exist; if you had never seen him, you would, I suppose, have accepted my hand?

PRINCESS.  You will not be offended if I tell you the truth?

KING.  No; my word on it.

PRINCESS.  I could never have listened to your love.

KING (rising hastily).  Am I then so ugly, so horrible, so vile, that even if your heart were not engaged elsewhere you could not have listened to me?

PRINCESS.  You are neither horrible nor vile, King Cophetua; but again promise me secrecy, and I will tell you the whole truth.

KING.  I promise.

PRINCESS.  You are loved by a maiden far more beautiful than I; she is dying of love for your sake!  She has suffered much for her love; she is suffering still.

KING.  Who is this maiden?

PRINCESS.  Ah!  She is but a beggar-maid; she lives on charity, the songs she sings, and the flowers she sells in the streets.  And now she is poorer than ever, for your royal mother has caused her to be driven out of the city.

Here the King weeps ­he is supposed to be deeply touched by the Princess’s account of the wrongs done to the beggar-maid ­and it is finally arranged between him and the Princess that they shall pretend to have come to some violent misunderstanding, and that, in their war of words, they shall insult each other’s parents so grossly that all possibilities of a marriage will be for ever at an end.  Throwing aside a chair so as to bring the Queen within ear-shot, the King declares that his royal neighbour is an old dunce, and that there is not enough money in his treasury to pay the Court boot-maker; the Princess retaliates by saying that the royal mother of the crowned head she is addressing is an old cat, who paints her face and beats her maids-of-honour.

The play that up to this point had been considered a little tedious now engaged the attention of the audience, and when the Queen entered she was greeted with roars of laughter.  The applause was deafening.  Olive played her part better than had been expected, and all the white frocks trembled with excitement.  The youths in the left-hand corner craned their heads forward so as not to lose a syllable of what was coming; the Bishop recrossed his legs in a manner that betokened his entire satisfaction; and, delighted, the mammas and papas whispered together.  But the faces of the nuns betrayed the anxiety they felt.  Inquiring glances passed beneath the black hoods; all the sleek faces grew alive and alarmed.  May was now alone on the stage, and there was no saying what indiscretion she might not be guilty of.

The Reverend Mother, however, had anticipated the danger of the scene, and had sent round word to the nun in charge of the back of the stage to tell Miss Gould that she was to set the crown straight on her head, and to take her hands out of her pockets.  The effect of receiving such instructions from the wings was that May forgot one-half her words, and spoke the other half so incorrectly that the passage Alice had counted on so much ­’At last, thank Heaven, that tiresome trouble is over, and I am free to return to music and poetry’ ­was rendered into nonsense, and the attention of the audience lost.  Nor were matters set straight until a high soprano voice was heard singing: 

’Buy, buy, who will buy roses of me? 
Roses to weave in your hair. 
A penny, only a penny for three,
Roses a queen might wear! 
Roses!  I gathered them far away
In gardens, white and red. 
Roses!  Make presents of roses to-day
And help me to earn my bread.’

The King divined that this must be the ballad-singer ­the beggar-maid who loved him, who, by some secret emissaries of the Queen, had been driven away from the city, homeless and outcast; and, snatching his lute from the wall, he sang a few plaintive verses in response.  The strain was instantly taken up, and then, on the current of a plain religious melody, the two voices were united, and, as two perfumes, they seemed to blend and become one.

Alice would have preferred something less ethereal, for the exigencies of the situation demanded that the King should get out of the window and claim the hand of the beggar-maid in the public street.  But the nun who had composed the music could not be brought to see this, and, after a comic scene between the Queen and the Chancellor, the King, followed by his Court and suite, entered, leading the beggar-maid by the hand.  In a short speech he told how her sweetness, her devotion, and, above all, her beautiful voice, had won his heart, and that he intended to make her his Queen.  A back cloth went up, and it disclosed a double throne, and as the young bride ascended the steps to take her place by the side of her royal husband, a joyful chorus was sung, in which allusion was made to a long reign and happy days.

Everyone was enchanted but Alice, who had wished to show how a man, in the trouble and bitterness of life, must yearn for the consoling sympathy of a woman, and how he may find the dove his heart is sighing for in the lowliest bracken; and, having found her, and having recognized that she is the one, he should place her in his bosom, confident that her plumes are as fair and immaculate as those that glitter in the sunlight about the steps and terraces of the palace.  Instead of this, she had seen a King who seemed to regard life as a sensual gratification; and a beggar-maid, who looked upon her lover, not timidly, as a new-born flower upon the sun, but as a clever huckstress at a customer who had bought her goods at her valuing.  But the audience did not see below the surface, and, in answer to clapping of hands and cries of Encore, the curtain was raised once more, and King Cophetua, seated on his throne by the side of his beggar-maid, was shown to them again.

The excitement did not begin to calm until the tableaux vivants were ready.  For, notwithstanding the worldliness of the day, it was thought that Heaven should not be forgotten.  The convent being that of the Holy Child, something illustrative of the birth of Christ naturally suggested itself.  No more touching or edifying subject than that of the Annunciation could be found.  Violet’s thin, elegant face seemed representative of an intelligent virginity, and in a long, white dress she knelt at the prie-dieu. Olive, with a pair of wings obtained from the local theatre, and her hair, blonde as an August harvesting, lying along her back, took the part of the Angel.  She wore a star on her forehead, and after an interval that allowed the company to recover their composure, and the carpenter to prepare the stage, the curtain was again raised.  This time the scene was a stable.  At the back, in the right-hand corner, there was a manger to which was attached a stuffed donkey; Violet sat on a low stool and held the new-born Divinity in her arms; May, who for the part of Joseph had been permitted to wear a false beard, held a staff, and tried to assume the facial expression of a man who had just been blessed with a son.  In the foreground knelt the three wise men from the East; with outstretched hands they held forth their offerings of frankincense and myrrh.  The picture of the world’s Redemption was depicted with such taste that a murmur of pious admiration sighed throughout the hall.

Soon after a distribution of prizes began, and when the different awards had been distributed, and the Bishop had made a speech, there was benediction in the convent-church.