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In which I rehearse the part of the boy hero of the thrilling melodrama, From Rags to Riches; and start off on a tour of the provinces.
I SAW Sidney off on the ship for Africa, having induced him to give me the cane, and as I stood waving at him I was so elated with success that I felt almost intoxicated. I was an actor at last — a real actor, with a rehearsal in prospect! I strutted up and down on the dock a bit after Sidney was gone feeling sorry for all the people about, who little realized what an important person they were passing so heedlessly. Then I took a cab again, as due to my position, and gave the driver the address of the rooms Sidney had taken for me in Burton Crescent.
I was not only an actor, but a man with an income of my own and bachelor chambers. I was very haughty with the char-woman who brought in the coals for my fire, and I sat frowning for some time in an attitude of deep thought, pondering whether I should have cream tart or apple-and-blackberry pudding for dinner. At last I decided on both and ate them in state before my own fire. It was a great evening.
Next morning I was divided between my eagerness to hurry to the rehearsal and my feeling that it would more accord with my importance if I should arrive a little late. It was not until the cab began to rattle over the cobbles about Covent Garden market that a sense of strangeness began to come over me, and I realized that I had never acted before and should not quite know what to do at the rehearsal. I looked from the windows of the cab at the costers' donkeys and thought what a short time ago I had envied them, woebegone and hungry as they were.
The rehearsal was in a room over a public house in Covent Garden, and as I climbed the stairs I began to feel small and a bit uncertain. When I went in the room was full of people standing about or sitting on boxes, and they all looked at me with interest. At one end, near the rough stage, was a little table with three important-looking men standing beside it, and after a look around I walked up to them.
"I am Charles Chaplin," I said, wishing I were taller. "I am, I believe, to play leading man in your production."
They looked me over as Mr. Stern had done, rather sharply, and then introduced themselves. The man in the dirty plaid waistcoat was Joe Baxter, manager of From Rags to Riches, and also the villain in the piece. The company had been playing for a ten-weeks' round of the suburbs and was now about to go into the provinces. They were already delayed by the illness of the lead, which Mr. Baxter cursed roundly, and his chief interest in me was the hope that I was a quick study. I assured him that I was, and without any further talk he began to read the play to me.
It appeared that I was to play the boy hero, an earl's son, defrauded of my rights by the villain after my mother had pitifully died in the streets of London with property snow sifted on her from the flies. I wandered in rags through three acts, which contained a couple of murders, a dozen hair-breadth escapes, and comic relief by the comedian, and I came triumphantly into my own in the fourth act, where the villain died a terrible death.
Now whether my liking for mimicry came to my aid or whether my own experiences, so much like those of the part I was to play, had given me material which I used unconsciously, I do not know, but when Mr. Baxter gave me my part and asked me to read it, I did it well. Mr. Baxter stood chewing his cigar when I had finished, and the look on his face was less discontented.
"Orl right," he said briskly. "Now, ladies and gents, ready! First act, second scene, Lord Plympton's droring-room You walk through this and read your part," he said to me. "No time for study, got to play Sweetbay tomorrow night. Do the best you can with it."
The woman who was to play my mother came over while I stood waiting with the part in my hand. She was a thin sallow woman in a bright red waist and a hat with blue and yellow feathers:
"Have a toffy?" she said, holding out a bag.
"No, thanks. I left off eating them years ago," I answered, swinging my cane.
"Horrid play, aren't it?" she went on. "Beastly life, on tour. How do you like your part?"
"Oh," I answered carelessly, "it's not much of a part, but I do what I can with it. I won't mind the provinces for a season. I'm tired of London."
"Here you, Reginald — Chaplett, whatever your name is — come on!" Mr. Baxter yelled, and I started forward on to the stage. Mr. Baxter uttered such a sound, between a groan and a roar, that I stopped, startled.
"Good Gawd!" he moaned. "That's the window, you idiot! Come through the door! Come through the door! What do you think you are, a bloomin' bird?"
It was hard work, rehearsing on the bare stage, with no idea what the scenery was to be, and Mr. Baxter went from rage to profanity and from that to speechlessness and groans while he drove us through the parts. We worked all day and late into the night and he did not let me stop a minute, although I grew hungry and the smell of the fried fish the other actors ate while I was on the stage took my mind from the work. At last he let me go, with a groan.
"It couldn't well be worse!" he said grimly. "Now, ladies and gents, Waterloo station eleven sharp to-morrow, ready fer Sweetbay!"
I came very wearily down the flight of stairs holding the bundle of manuscript and my cane while the words of my part and all the stage directions buzzed together in my brain. I had not money enough for a cab; if we were to go to Sweetbay the next day I must walk back to my rooms. It was a cold foggy night and my steps sounded loud and echoing on the pavements as I hurried along, tired and hungry, almost ready to wish for a coster's cart that I might crawl into and rest. But I held as firmly as I could to the thought that I was an actor, though finding small comfort in it, and when at last I had reached my rooms I had persuaded myself that I was driven by the duties and ambitions of a great position. So I scowled fiercely at my reflection in the mirror over the mantel, and tying a towel about my head so as to look the character of a diligent student, I sat all night reading the words of my part and committing them to memory.
Next morning, when I reached the station with my bag, the rest of the company was waiting, very draggled and weary looking, while Mr. Baxter bustled about, swearing loudly. My spirits rose at the noise and excitement of the starting, and when I saw the compartment labeled, "Reserved: From Rags to Riches company," I held my head proudly again, hoping that passers-by would notice and say to each other, "See! He must be the leading man."
I lingered on the platform until the last minute, looking as important as I could and thinking how well the cane carried out the effect, and then, as the engine began to puff and the train slowly started, I swung myself aboard and walked into the compartment where the company was settling itself for the trip to Sweetbay.