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In which I journey to London; meet and speak with a wax-works figure; and make my first appearance in a great theater.
I DO not know how I got through my act that night. I was in such a flurry of excitement and so jubilant over the great news that I missed my cues and played with only half my wits on my work, careless how Holmes frowned at me. Every one in the company had heard of my telegram from Frohman before the end of the second act, and I knew they were watching me enviously from the wings. I rushed past them, in wild haste to get to the dressing-room and take off my make-up as soon as my last scene was finished, and I was half dressed while they were taking the curtain call.
I met Holmes and the manager just outside the dressing-room and resigned my place in their company with great haughtiness.
"Of course — er — you understand that er — can not do justice to my art as long as I am supported by merely provincial actors," I said, looking at Holmes as majestically as I might from a height two feet less than his. Then I drew the manager aside and said kindly, "Of course, old man, I appreciate all you've done, and all that — any time I can do anything for you with Frohman, you understand, you've only to say the word."
The entire company, excepting only Holmes, was at the station to see me off next morning, and since in the meantime my first vainglory had diminished and I felt more my usual self, there was a jolly half-hour before the train left. Every one wished me luck and promised to come to see me act in London, while I assured them I would not forget old friends, and the manager clapped me heartily on the back and said he'd always known I would do great things. They gave a great cheer when the train started and I waved at them from the back platform. Then I was off, to London and fame.
Early the next afternoon, dressed in a new suit with new shirt and tie to match, I arrived at the Duke of York's Theater in the West End and inquired for the stage manager. I had to wait for him a minute on the dim stage and I stood looking out over the rows of empty seats in the big dark house, thrilling to think that before long they would be filled with scores of persons watching me act. Then Mr. Postham came hurrying up, a very busy man with a quick nervous voice. I told him who I was, and he gave me the manuscript of my part in a hurried manner.
"That's all. Rehearsal here, nine to-morrow," he said. Then, as I was turning away, he added, "Like to see Mr. Gillette?"
"I would, yes," I answered eagerly, and tried to clutch at my self-possession, which I had never lacked before, while the boy led me through the dim passages to Mr. Gillette's dressing-room. The boy knocked at the door of it, said loudly, "Mr. Chaplin to see Mr. Gillette," and left me standing there, breathing hard.
An instant later the door opened and a little Japanese, perfectly dressed in the clothes of an English man-servant, popped into the aperture. I had never seen a Japanese servant before, and his appearance so confounded me that I could only look at him and repeat what the boy had said, while I fumbled in my pocket for a card and wondered if it would be proper to give it to him if I should find one. It appeared that it was not necessary, for he opened the door wider. I stepped in.
William Gillette was sitting before his dressing-table, busy with make-up. He rose to meet me — a very tall stately man, his face entirely covered with dead white paint. The whole place was white — the walls, the dressing-table, even the floor, as I remember it — and the whiteness was intensified by a glare of strong white light. In that bright glare, and under the mask of white paint, Mr. Gillette did not seem like a real man. He seemed like some fantastic curio in a glass case.
"You're to play Billy, I understand," he said, looking keenly at me through narrow, almost almond, eyes. "How old are you?"
"Fourteen, sir," I answered as if hypnotized, for I was now telling every one that I was sixteen.
"I hear you're a very promising young actor," he said. "I hope you'll make a good Billy — what did you want to see me about?"
"I just wanted to see you," I replied.
"Well, I'm very glad we've met," he said, looking amused, I thought. "If I can be any help to you, come again, won't you?"
I think I replied suitably as I backed out. I reached the street before I quite recovered from the effect of his strange appearance in that white room. I had met one of the greatest actors on the English stage, and I felt as though I had seen a figure in a wax-works and it had spoken to me.
Then, when I stood on the curb in all the noise of the London traffic, I realized that the events of that momentous day were all real. I was engaged to play with William Gillette in the finest of West End theaters; I held the manuscript of my part in my hand. Excited and jubilant, I rushed off to tell my mother the great news, and then to engage lodgings of my own, where I spent all that evening walking up and down, rehearsing the part of Billy, only pausing now and then, with a whoop, to do a few dance steps or stand on my head.
The next morning I was one of the first to reach the theater for rehearsal. I had risen early to take a few turns up and down the Strand, hoping to meet some one I knew to whom I could mention casually that I was with Frohman now, but every one I passed was a stranger and I had to content myself with looking haughtily at them and saying to myself: "You wouldn't half like to be on your way to rehearsal with William Gillette, would you now? What, ho!"
Mr. Postham proved to be different from the stage managers I had known before. He was nervous and excitable, but no matter how badly an actor read his lines, Mr. Postham never swore at him.
"No," he said quietly. "This way, 'I'll do it, sir.' No, not 'I'll do it, sir,' but 'I'll do it, sir.' Try it again. No, that's a little too emphatic. Listen, 'I'll do it, sir.' Not quite so self-confident. Again, 'I'll do it, sir.' Once more, please." He never seemed to grow tired. He kept us at it for hours, watching every detail, every inflection or shade of tone, and his patience was endless. It was new work to me, but I liked it; and after rehearsal I would practise for hours in my rooms, liking the sound of my voice in the different tones.
William Gillette had come to London with a play called Clarice, which had not gone well. He was putting on Sherlock Holmes to save the season and rushing rehearsals in order to have the new play ready in the shortest possible time. We worked all day, and twice were called for midnight rehearsals, after Clarice was off the boards. Two weeks after I reached London we were called at seven in the morning for dress rehearsal. Sherlock Holmes was to be put on that night.
Everything went wrong at the dress rehearsal. We were overworked and nervous; we missed our cues; some of the properties were lost; Mr. Postham was intensely quiet. I was very well pleased by it all, for every East End actor knows that a bad dress rehearsal means a good first performance, but the manager and Mr. Gillette did not seem to share my opinion, and the company scattered gloomily enough when at last they let us go, with admonitions to be early at the theater that night.
I was made up and dressed for the first scene early, and hurried out to the peep-hole in the curtain, hoping to catch a glimpse of my mother in the audience. I had got tickets for her and Mrs. Hobbs and ordered a carriage for them, as my mother was not strong and could not come in a tram. The house was filling fast. Behind the scenes there was tense breathless excitement; scene shifters and stage carpenters were hurrying back and forth; there was a furious scene over something mislaid. Every one's nerves were strained to the breaking point.
The curtain went up. From the wings, where I stood waiting for my cue and saying my lines over and over to myself with a tight feeling in my throat, I saw Mr. Gillette opening the scene. I listened carefully to every word he spoke, knowing that every one brought my entrance nearer. Suddenly Mr. Postham touched my shoulder.
"Royalty's in front," he said. 'Whatever you do, don't look at the royal box."
Then, on the stage, Mr. Gillette spoke my cue. I put back my shoulders, cleared my throat, and stepped out on the stage, my brain repeating, "Don't look at the royal box."
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes