As a small girl I must have been a curiosity. At least I hope so. Because if I was only an average child what a time parents, and guardians, and schoolmistresses, and those sort of persons, must have of it. To this hour I am a creature of impulse. But then–! I did a thing; started to regret it when it was about half done; and if I ever thought at all about the advisability of doing it, it was certainly only when everything was over.
Take the case of my very fleeting association with Bradford’s Royal Theatre.
So far as I can fix it, at the time I must have been about twelve. A small, elf-like creature, with eyes which were ever so much too big for my face, and a mass of unruly, very dark brown, hair. Some people have told me that then it was black. But I doubt it. For there are those who tell me that it is black now, which I have the very best of reasons for knowing it is not. At that school they called me The Witch; in allusion, I believe, not only to my personal appearance but also to my uncanny goings-on.
The school was in a Sussex village. To that village there used to come each year a travelling theatre. It took the form of a good-sized oblong tent, which was erected in a field which was attached to the Half Moon Hotel. I imagine that the whole countryside must have patronised Bradford’s Royal Theatre, because sometimes it would stay there for two months at a time. It put in its first appearance, so far as I was concerned, during my second term at Miss Pritchard’s school. We girls were not supposed to know anything about it. But well do I remember the awe with which I used to gaze at the exceedingly dingy canvas structure as we passed it in our walks. And once when Nelly Haynes, with whom I was walking, pointing to an individual who was lounging in his shirt sleeves at the entrance to the field, observed that that was one of the principal actors–though what she knew about it I have not the faintest notion–I could not have stared at him with greater curiosity had he been the Slave of Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.
Even yet, when I am in the mood, I read everything in the way of print that I can lay my hand on. In that respect, also, I fear that the girl was mother to the woman. I had recently come across an article in a magazine treating of infant phenomena; I am not quite sure if the plural ought to be written with an a or an s when using the word in that particular sense; but, any way, I will leave it. How I had lighted on the magazine I cannot remember. But I rather fancy that it must have been the property of one of the governesses, who had left it lying about, and that I borrowed it without going through the form of asking leave. I know that I took it to a corner of the orchard of which we had the freedom when there was no fruit upon the trees, and that I devoured that article. It was all about precocious children. Recording how Mozart had composed masses–whatever they were!–at the age of two, or less, and how some little girl had won fame as a dancer at the age of three, or perhaps a trifle more. But in particular it told of the Infant Roscius. The story of that Wonderful Boy–he was throughout alluded to as The Wonderful Boy–set my brain in a whirl. I do not think that I have read much–if anything–about William Henry West Betty since; but I do believe that I recollect nearly all that I read then. He took London by storm when he was twelve years old; my age! the tale of my own years nearly to a tick! As Selim in Barbarossa–when one thinks of it, it must have been a wonderful part in a truly wonderful play for that Wonderful Boy!–the whole world of wit, and wealth, and fashion was at his feet. In the course of a single season he gained over seventeen thousand pounds.
Those are facts and figures for you. Especially were they facts and figures for me then. By the time I had reached the end of that article my mind was firmly resolved upon one point–that I would be an Infant Phenomenon. There should be a Wonderful Girl as well as a Wonderful Boy. It seemed clear to me that girls, of the proper type, might be made quite as attractive as boys. The mystery was that there should not have been a Wonderful Girl already. But the want should be immediately supplied.
Of course, one or two difficulties were in the way. I had never acted myself, or seen anybody else act, and knew as much about plays as about Mars. And then Betty was encouraged; while I had an inward conviction that that would not be the case with me. Under these circumstances I did not quite see, at the moment, how I was to play the principal part at Covent Garden, nor even begin to charm the world–as young Betty had done–at a theatre in Ireland. But not for one moment did I allow myself to be daunted by considerations of that kind.
I think it was the very next day–my enthusiasm lasted all through the night, which was not always the case, for I have gone to sleep intending to marry a missionary and woke up bent on being a queen of the cannibals–that Fate threw in my way the very opportunity I wanted–at Bradford’s Royal Theatre.
I imagine that it must have been pretty bad weather about that time. When it was not raining it was blowing; and when, as the Irishman said, it was doing neither, it was doing both. Climatic conditions unfavourably affected the attendance at Bradford’s Royal Theatre. I know such was the case because I heard the governesses saying so. It all comes back to me. It was after morning lessons; I was in the schoolroom writing to someone at home–in those days I was a tremendous correspondent–and some of the governesses were talking together close to where I sat. They paid no attention to the pair of large ears attached to the small person close at hand. The theme of their conversation was Bradford’s Royal Theatre, and they were expressing their fears that things had lately gone very badly with the company thereof. Two remarks stick in my memory:–that on one occasion there had only been one and ninepence taken at the door; and that at the close of a recent week there had been less than two pounds to divide among seven people. What warrant they had for their statements I cannot say. But I know that they made a vivid impression on me at the time. And when they spoke of certain individuals being in actual want, it was all I could do to refrain from showing more interest in the topic under discussion than, under the circumstances, would have been discreet.
Because, as I listened, it burst in upon me in one of those sudden flashes of illumination to which I was singularly liable that here was the very opening I wanted. Here was a chance to figure, in a double sense, as a Wonderful Girl.
On the one hand I would dower these unfortunate people with the wealth of which they stood so much in need; on the other, I would take the world by storm. At Bradford’s Royal Theatre, in the guise of a benevolent fairy, I would commence that career compared to which that of the Infant Roscius would be as nothing.
I did not stop to consider–it was not my custom. Stealing from the schoolroom, taking my hat from its peg, crossing the playground, paying no attention to the girls who spoke to me, through the gate out into the road, I marched right straight away to Bradford’s Royal Theatre.
When I think of it I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. The eager little creature that I was, with my heart swelling in my bosom, my head full of unutterable things, striding along the country road, now breaking into a run, now compelled to relax my speed for want of breath. It must have been nearly one o’clock, our dinner-time at school. I remember that I had twopence in my pocket. I fancy that at Miss Pritchard’s–my first boarding-school–my allowance was threepence a week; and as that was paid on Saturday, and I still had twopence left, it is probable that I adventured in the regions of infant phenomena upon a Monday. My way lay past a solitary shop. I got hungry as I walked–in those days I did get hungry–the presence of that shop brought the fact vividly home to me. I paused to see what might be bought. My instinct pointed to sweets. Just as I was about to follow my instinct I perceived, on a dish in the corner of the window, a German sausage–or rather, a portion of one. I thought of the hungry folk at Bradford’s Royal Theatre. My mind was made up on the instant. Into the shop I went and asked for two pennyworths of German sausage. Whoever it was that served me must have stared, for I can hardly have looked like an individual who might be expected to make a purchase of the kind. But, anyhow, I got what I desired, and with it in my hand, wrapped in a piece of newspaper, I pursued my way.
I would not only present these unfortunates with the first-fruits of my great gifts, I would furnish them with food as well.
Whether, while I was being served with that German sausage, I had time to begin to reflect, I cannot say, but I have a clear recollection that, after quitting that emporium of commerce, my steps were not marked by that enthusiasm which had originally sent me speeding like an arrow from a bow. Probably the whole distance was not more than three-quarters of a mile, and of that less than two hundred yards remained. But that two hundred yards took me longer than all the rest had done.
I was beginning–positively–to be afraid. When I reached a point at which the histrionic temple was only on the other side of the road I stood still. I was conscious of considerable reluctance to cross from the side on which I was to the side on which it was. For one thing, I was appalled by the peculiar dreariness of its appearance. I could not fancy the Infant Roscius commencing his career in that. The tent itself did look so shabby; the living waggons, which stood disconsolately together in the mud, were so much in want of painting; about the whole there was such an atmosphere of meanness, such a wealth of mire, that my heart began to sink. A small girl ran from the tent to a waggon, and from the waggon back to the tent. She struck me as being the dirtiest and most disreputable-looking creature I had ever seen. I called to her, meaning to give her that twopennyworth of German sausage and then retire, postponing the opening of my career until a future time. But either I did not call loud enough or she was in too much haste to heed. She disappeared without a glance in my direction.
The moment she was gone sudden consciousness of the shameful thing that I would do swept over me. I had come to help those poor people, and just because they evidently were so much in want of help I proposed to leave them to their fate. Was I attempting to quiet my conscience by pretending that it would be enough to present them with two pennyworths of German sausage? What–my thoughts flying back to what the governess had said–was two pennyworths of German sausage among seven? Why, I could eat it all myself–and more! Over the road I tore, clattered along the boards which formed a causeway through the thick, upstanding filth; in a flash was through the entrance and in the theatre.
Then I paused. Without, the day was dull. Inside, to my unaccustomed eyes, all at first was darkness. I have not forgotten the anguish with which I began to realise some of the details of my surroundings. It was all so dreadful–so different to anything I had expected. To begin with, there was the smell. As the merest dot I never could stand odours of any kind. Even now, whoever presents me with a bottle of scent makes of me an enemy. That smelt as if all the bad air was kept in and all the good kept out. Then it was so small; to me it perhaps appeared smaller than it actually was, because I thought that Miss Pritchard’s pupils would have filled it. And dirty, untidy, comfortless, beyond my powers of description. There was nothing on the ground to protect one’s feet from the oozing damp. If the audience sat at all I could not think. I saw nothing in the way of seats, unless they were represented by some boards which were piled upon each other at one side. At one end, raised a little from the ground, was a platform of rough planks, so small that there could hardly have been room on it for half a dozen persons standing abreast. It never occurred to me till afterwards that that was the stage. I kept wondering where the stage was. I knew that theatres had stages.
While, as they became used to the light, my keen young eyes were taking these things in, I perceived that the place had occupants. There were four men and three women. I should have put them down as the seven I had heard alluded to, had there not also been a litter of children. It was only the children who seemed to take any interest in me. They clustered round, a ragamuffin crowd, regarding me as if I were some strange beast. At last one of them exclaimed,–
“Mother, here’s a little girl!”
The woman whom, I supposed, the child addressed, looked up from some potatoes which she was washing in a pail of water.
“Well, little girl, what is it you’re wanting?”
The place, the people, their surroundings, everything was so altogether different to the vague something I had anticipated, that, like the creature of moods I was, I seemed, all at once, to have passed from a world of fact into a world of dream. It was like one in a dream I answered,–
“I have come to be the Infant Roscius.”
Not unnaturally the lady who was washing the potatoes failed to understand.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
I repeated my assertion.
“I have come to be the Infant Roscius.”
Other of the grown-ups roused themselves to stare at me.
“What’s she talking about?” inquired a second woman, who had a baby at her breast.
An elderly man, who was perched on the edge of the platform smoking a pipe, hazarded an explanation.
“She’s after tickets; that’s what it is she wants.”
The potato washer seemed to be brightened by the hint.
“Has your mother sent you to buy some tickets?”
I shook my head solemnly.
“I have come to act.”
That my appearance, words and manner together were creating some sort of a sensation I understood. That these were ignorant people I had already–with my wonted promptitude–concluded. It seemed to me that it would be necessary to treat them as children–and dull of comprehension at that–to whom I, as a grown-up person, had to explain, in the clearest possible manner, exactly what it was that had brought me there. This I at once proceeded to do, with what I have no doubt whatever was an air of ineffable superiority.
“I am going to be a Wonderful Girl. I am nearly twelve, and Young Betty was only twelve, and he earned over seventeen thousand pounds in one season, and if I earn as much as that I will give it all to you.” I paused–to reflect. “At least I would give you a great deal of it. Of course, I should like to keep some, because a Wonderful Girl mayn’t go on long, and when I stop of course I should want to have a fortune to live upon, like Young Betty had. But still that wouldn’t matter, because there’d be plenty for seven.”
Amid my confused imaginings I had pictured the announcement of my purpose being received with wild applause. Those who heard would cast themselves at my feet, throw their arms about me, and rain tears upon my head. Not that that sort of thing would be altogether agreeable. But something of the kind would have to be put up with. When people were beside themselves with gratitude at seeing themselves snatched from the gaping jaws of feelings had to be allowed them. If, however, the persons to whom my explanation was actually addressed were beside themselves with gratitude they managed to conceal the fact with astonishing success. It struck me that they did not understand me even yet, which showed that they must be excessively dull. More stupid even than the teeny weeny tots in the first class who could not be got to see things.
The seven looked from me to each other, then back again to me. The woman with the baby repeated her former question, as if she had no sense of comprehension. I wondered if she was deaf.
“What’s she talking about?”
The man who had dropped the hint about the tickets, descending from his perch upon the platform, came sauntering in my direction. As he moved he placed his hand against his forehead.
“Barmy on the crumpet,” he observed.
What he meant I had not a notion. It moved a third woman, whose girth precluded any notion of her being on the verge of famine, to exclaim,–
The potato washer began to put me through an examination.
“What’s your name?”
“Where d’ye live?”
“You ain’t come all the way from West Marden here?”
“I’ve come from Miss Pritchard’s school.”
The statement seemed to fill the man with illuminating light.
“Ah, that’s just what I thought! D’rectly I see her that’s just what I thought. Miss Pritchard’s–that’s the girls’ school on the Brighton road, house is inside a wall. I went there to try to get them for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. First the lady said there wasn’t to be no flogging, then that she couldn’t possibly bring her pupils if there wasn’t any chairs for them to sit up. I told Mr Biffin what she said. And he said, well there wasn’t any chairs, and there was an end of it.”
The woman with the baby interposed an observation.
“We should do better if there was chairs. It isn’t likely that the front seat people will want to sit on boards.”
The big woman proffered a reminder.
“On the front seats there’s baize.”
Which the woman with the baby spurned.
The man addressed himself to me. He was a thin man, with iron-grey hair, and there was something about his face which made me think that though he was untidy, and I wished he would not wear such a very greasy cap, I might induce myself in time to like him. Never once did he remove his pipe from his mouth, nor his hands from his trouser pockets.
“Well, Miss Boyes, it’s a pity you should have come to act, seeing that there’s a good many of us here that does that sort of thing already. The difficulty is to get people to come and see us do it. Do you think that many of your friends would come and see you act?”
“Well, not many of my friends.”
“That, again, is unfortunate.”
“But strangers would.”
“It’s that way with you, is it? With us it’s different. We look to friends for our support. Strangers are sometimes disagreeable. What plays were you thinking of acting?”
“I don’t know any plays as yet. But I soon could.”
“Of course. That’s easy enough. Hamlet, I suppose, and that kind of thing. And what sort of part were you thinking of playing?”
“I really haven’t thought.”
“No, you wouldn’t, such a trifle being of no consequence. You weren’t thinking of playing old women?”
“Well, I don’t think I could act old women. But I might try. Young Betty acted an old man.”
“Young Betty did. Is that so? And who might young Betty be? A friend of yours? That young lady over there, her name’s Betty.”
He jerked his elbow towards the woman with the baby. I was shocked, although, having already taken their ignorance for granted, I was able to conceal my feelings with comparative ease.
“He was a boy.”
“A boy? With a name like Betty? What was his father and mother up to then?”
“His name was William Henry West Betty. He was the Infant Roscius.”
“He was The Wonderful Boy. I am going to be a Wonderful Girl.”
“You’re that already. Seeing that you are a Wonderful Girl, what might have put it into your head to come here?”
“You are very poor, aren’t you?”
“Poor? That’s what you might call a leading question. We’re not rich. Who told you we were poor?”
“Didn’t you only take one and ninepence at the door one night?”
By this time general interest was being roused in our conversation. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was aware that they had been heard with more attention than anything I yet had said. Though why that should be the case was beyond my capacity of perception.
“Only took one and ninepence at the door one night, did we? Oh! Looks as if someone had been talking. From whom might you have heard that piece of news?”
“And one week weren’t there less than two pounds to divide among seven? You could not live on that. No one could. It’s not to be done. It simply means starvation.”
I merely repeated, with all the earnestness of which I was capable, what I had heard the governesses saying. My remarks were followed by what even I felt was a significant silence. My interlocutor, bringing forward with his foot what looked like an empty egg-box, placed himself upon a corner. It creaked under his weight.
“It would seem as if somebody knows almost as much about this temple of the drama as it knows about itself. And it certainly is true that, regarded as a week’s earnings, two pounds isn’t much between seven. So you thought–?”
“I thought I’d come and help you.”
“Come and help us? By acting?”
“If I’m going to be a Wonderful Girl–and I am going to be–it’s quite time I was beginning. Young Betty was at the height of his fame when he was twelve. So I thought I would commence by making a lot of money for you here, which would keep you all from starving; and then, of course, I shall go on to London and make the rest of my fortune there.”
“I see. Well, this bangs Banagher. Banagher it bangs.”
What he meant I could not say. But he should have been a capital actor, because not a muscle of his face moved. A man behind him laughed–stinging me as with the lash of a whip.
The big woman delivered herself of her former ejaculation.
The potato washer remarked,–
“Strikes me, my girl, that you’ve a good opinion of yourself.”
The grey-headed man had his eyes upon what I had in my hand.
“What might you happen to have there?”
“It’s some food which I have brought for you.”
“For me in particular, or for all the lot of us?”
“It’s for the seven.”
“The seven? I see. The seven who divided those two sovereigns.”
“Yes. It’s some German sausage. I hope you like German sausage.”
“It’s my favourite joint.”
I endeavoured to correct what I imagined to be a still further display of his ignorance.
“I don’t think that German sausage is a joint. It’s not generally looked upon as such. It’s a long, round, cold thing, off which, you know, they cut it in slices.”
I passed him the parcel, he removing–for the first time–one of his hands from his pockets for the purpose of taking it, balancing it on his open palm as if on a scale. It was a pretty grimy piece of newspaper, and was not of a size to suggest extensive contents. I became more and more conscious of its wretched smallness as, with every outward appearance of care and gravity, he slowly unwrapped it. The others gathered closer round, as if agog with curiosity. Finally there were revealed three or four attenuated slices. He held them out at arm’s length in front of them.
“There isn’t much,” I managed to murmur, oppressed, all at once, by the discovery of what a dreadful little there really was. “But I had only twopence.”
“You had only twopence, so you purchased two pennyworths of German sausage–for seven.”
“Of course I’ll earn a deal of money for you besides.”
A girl came rushing into the tent behind me. The interruption was welcome, for I instinctively felt that matters had reached a point at which a diversion of any sort was to be desired. But I was far from being prepared for the proclamation which she instantly made.
“Here’s the lady come!–I’ve been and fetched her!”
To my blank astonishment there appeared–Miss Pritchard. That intelligent young woman, having a shrewd eye for a possible reward, had availed herself of the information which had been extracted from me to rush off to the school to proclaim my whereabouts, receiving, as I afterwards learnt, a shilling for her pains. Never before had I seen Miss Pritchard in such a state of agitation; and no wonder, considering the pace at which she must have torn along the road.
“Molly!–Molly Boyes, what is the meaning of this?”
The sight of her had driven me speechless. I could not have told her for everything the world contained. My interlocutory friend explained instead–in a fashion of his own.
“It’s all right, madam–everything’s quite right! Having heard that things were in a bad way with us in this temple of the drama this young lady has brought us two pennyworths of German sausage to save us from actual starvation, and has expressed her intention–I don’t quite follow that part, but so far as I can make out she’s proposing to make our fortunes by beginning to be a Wonderful Girl; which it isn’t necessary for her to begin to be, seeing as how I should say that she’s been a Wonderful Girl ever since the moment she was born.”
Of what immediately followed I have but a dim appreciation. I know that, on the instant, I was turned into a common butt–or I felt as if I was. The children pointed their fingers at me and jeered. The grown-ups were all talking at once. There was general confusion. The whole rickety tent was filled with a tumult of scorn and laughter.
Presently I was being escorted by Miss Pritchard back to school, the children standing in the middle of the road to point after me as I went. I was in an agony of shame. With that keenness of vision with which I have been dowered I perceived, as I was wont to do, too late, what an idiot I had been! What a simpleton! What a conceited, presumptuous, ignorant little wretch! How I had made of myself a mock and a show for the amusement of the company of Bradford’s Royal Theatre! I felt as if the hideous fact was written on my face–on every line of me. All I wanted was to hide, to bury myself somewhere where none might witness my distress. Although my worthy schoolmistress was walking faster than I ever saw her walk before or afterwards, I kept tugging at her hand–she was not going fast enough for me.
So soon as we reached the school she took me into her little private sitting-room, and, without removing her hat, or giving me time to take off mine, required from me an immediate explanation of my conduct. Amid my blinding sobs I gave her as full and complete an explanation as she could possibly have desired. The bump of frankness was–and is–marked on my phrenological chart as developed to an even ridiculous extent. When I have been indulging in one of my usual escapades nothing contents me but an unrestrained declaration of all the motives which impelled me to do the thing or things which I ought to have left undone.
I told her about the article in the magazine, and about what I had heard of the pitiful state of things at Bradford’s Royal Theatre, and my determination to assist them while starting on my meteoric career. And before I had gone very far, instead of scolding, she had her arm about me, and was endeavouring to soothe my sobs. She must have been a very sensitive person for a schoolmistress–though I do not know why I should say that, because I have not the least idea why schoolmistresses should not be as sensitive as anybody else, since they are human–for when I began to tell her of how I had expended my capital on the purchase of what that grey-headed man had called his “favourite joint,” she drew me quite close to her, and in the midst of my own anguish I actually felt the tears upon her cheeks. She took me on her knee, and instead of sending me to bed, or into the corner, or punishing me in any way whatever, she kissed and comforted me as if I had not been the most ridiculous child in the world. It might not have been the sort of treatment I deserved, but I loved her for it ever afterwards.
What was more, she promised not to betray me to the governesses, or to my schoolfellows, or to anyone. Though I think that she wrote and told my mother, though mother never breathed a hint of her having done anything of the sort to me. But I always thought so. It was weeks and weeks before I could bear the slightest allusion to anything “wonderful” without becoming conscious of an internal quiver. I fancy Miss Pritchard must have given instructions as to the direction our walks were to take. It was some little time before the governess led us past the site of Bradford’s Royal Theatre. When next we went that way every vestige of the “temple of the drama” had disappeared. The dingy–and odious–tent had gone.
It was with a positive gasp of satisfaction that I recognised the fact. A weight seemed lifted off my bosom, and my heart grew lighter there and then. When, the walk being over, we returned, before anyone could stop me, or had an inkling of my intention, I dashed headlong into Miss Pritchard’s private room. She was seated at the table writing.
“It’s gone!” I cried.
She must have been very quick of understanding. She did not ask me what had gone. She just put her arm about me, as she had done before, and pushed my hair from off my brow, and, I think, she laughed.
Categories: English Literature