Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
In which I understand why other people fall; burn my bridges behind me; and receive a momentous telegram.
THIS time I sat in Frank Stern's office with no inflated opinion of my own importance, only hoping, with a fast-beating heart, that he would offer me some place with a salary. I could hardly hear what he said for thinking of the few coins in my pocket and my mother in the hospital waiting for me to come back and take her to the beautiful lodgings I had promised to engage.
"Joe Baxter tells me you did fairly well on tour," the agent said, after an idle remark or two. "He's taking out Jim, the Romance of a Cockney in a few weeks. how would you like the lead?"
"I'd like it," I said eagerly, and realized the next minute I had done myself out of a raise in the pay by not asking first how much it would be. But the relief of having a part was so great that I did not much care.
I came whistling down the stairs after I had left Frank Stern, and in the Strand I looked with a different eye on the actors I passed, beginning to think that, after all, they must lack real merit such as I had, or else they drank or were not willing to work. I saw the comedian from the From Rags to Riches company, looking very seedy, and was passing him with a nod when he stopped me.
"How's tricks?" he asked of me. "Shopped yet?"
"Oh, yes, I have an engagement," I replied carelessly, swinging my cane. "Only, a provincial company, but not so bad."
"I say, not really?" he said, surprised. "You're in luck. Look here, old chap, could you lend me five bob?"
"Well, no," I answered. "No, I'm afraid not. But I hope you're shopped soon. You ought to quit drinking, you know — you'd do better."
"Well enough for you to talk, my lad. You'll think different when you've been tramping the Strand for twenty years, like I have, and never a decent chance in the whole of them. You're on top now, but you'll find it's not all beer and skittles before you've done. I say, make it three bob — or two?"
I gave him a shilling and he begged me to say a word to Baxter for him, which I meant to do, but later forgot. Then I went searching lodgings for my mother. I found them in a private home for convalescents in Burton Crescent — very decent rooms with a little balcony overlooking a small park, and Mrs. Dobbs, the landlady, seemed a pleasant person and promised to look out for my mother while I was on tour.
My mother was delighted when she saw the place, laughing and crying at the same time, while I wrapped her in Sidney's shawl and made her comfortable with some cushions on the couch before the fire. We had tea together very cozily, and I told her I should soon be a great London actor, which she firmly believed, only saying I was too modest and made a mistake in going on tour when I should have at least a good part in a West End theater.
By closest economy I managed to send her a pound every week during that season with Jim, the Romance of a Cockney, though sometimes going without supper to buy the envelope and stamp; and because it is not poverty, but economy, which teaches the value of a penny, I learned it so thoroughly that year that I have never forgotten it. The only part of the tour which I enjoyed was the time I spent on the stage, when I forgot my constant thought of money and lived the romantic joys and griefs of Jim. I played the part so well, perhaps for this reason, that I was becoming known as one of the most promising boy actors in England, and I used to clip every mention of my acting which I could find and send it to my mother in the Saturday letter.
When I came back to London at the close of the season I expected nothing less than a rush of the managers to engage me. I walked into Frank Stern's office very chesty and important with not even a glance for the office boy or the crowd of actors patiently waiting and knocked on his door with my cane. Then I pushed it open and went in.
Frank Stem was sitting with his feet on his desk, smoking and reading Floats in great contentment. He leaped to his feet when he heard me walk in, but when he saw who it was he welcomed me boisterously.
"Glad to see you back, glad to see you!" he said jovially. "Sit down."
"No, thanks. I just dropped in to see what you had to offer for next season," I said carelessly. "It must be something good this time, you know."
His cordiality dropped like a mask; he looked at me very sternly.
"There's a part in His Mother Left Him to Starve," he said. "We could use you in that."
"How much salary?" I asked.
"Two pounds," he answered sharply.
"No, thanks," I said airily. "Though I won't say I mightn't consider it for four."
"Then I'm afraid I haven't anything," he said, and turned back to his desk as though he were very busy. I went out whistling, so sure of my value that I was careless of offending him. And indeed when, ten days later, I was offered the part of Billy, the page, in Sherlock Holmes, at a salary of thirty shillings, I was sure that I had acted astutely, and gave myself credit for good business sense as well as great talent. I even had some thoughts of holding out for a part in the London company, and if I had had a few shillings more, or any money to pay for my mother's lodgings, I might have been foolish enough to do it.
As it was, I walked into the rooms where the company was rehearsing with a feeling that it was a condescension on my part to go on tour again, and marching briskly up to the prompter's table, laid my cane upon it — a breach of theatrical etiquette at which the company stood aghast. I never did it again, for that day's work with a real stage manager gave me my first idea of good acting, and I left late that night with my vanity smarting painfully.
"Act natural!" I said to myself, bitterly mocking the stage manager. " 'Talk like a human being!' My eye, what do they think the people want? I act like an actor, I talk like an actor, and if they don't like it they can jolly well take their old show! I can get better!"
Nevertheless, I went back next day and worked furiously under the scathing sarcasm and angry oaths of the manager until I had learned the part passably well and forgotten most of the stage tricks I had found so effective in From Rags to Riches. The night before we went on tour I had dinner with my mother, who was still in the care of Mrs. Hobbs, so thin and nervous that it worried me to see her, and she was fluttering with excitement and overjoyed at my being a great actor, but, for the first time I doubted it.
However, the press notices speedily brought back my self-confidence. In almost every town they praised my work so highly that the actor who played Holmes gave me cold glances whenever he saw me and even cut bits of my part. Then, though complaining bitterly, I knew I had really "arrived," and I openly grinned at him before the company, and demanded a better dressing-room.
Just before the close of the tour I was standing in the wings one evening confiding to one of the actresses my intention of placing a bent pin in Holmes' chair on the stage next evening, where I calculated it would have great effect, owing to his drawing his dressing gown tight around him with a dignified air just before sitting down, when a boy came up and gave me a telegram. I tore it open, fearing bad news from my mother, and read it. It said:
"William Gillette opens in Sherlock Holmes here next week. Wants you for Billy. Charles Frohman."
William Gillette! Charles Frohman!