Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
In which I try to drown my troubles in liquor and find them worse than before; try to make a living by hard work and meet small success; and find myself at last in a hospital bed, saying a surprising thing.
I STARED stupidly at Sidney's letter for a minute and then I reread it slowly. It seemed like a horrible mockery — "cutting a dash on the Strand" — "The clever one of the family." And he wanted to borrow five pounds — or three — when I had only a shilling in the world.
It was the most bitter humiliation of my life. I who had always been so sure of my talent, who had patronized Sidney and promised so grandly to help him if he ever needed it and sent him the press notices of my great success with a condescending little note saying that it made no difference to me, I remembered him as fondly as ever — I could not send him a penny, or even buy food for myself.
After a while I took out a sheet of paper and tried to write to him, but I could not manage it. I made several beginnings and chewed my pen a long time, while my shame and misery grew until I could bear it no longer. I put on my hat and went out.
Then, having made so many mistakes already and lost so much by them that I could not endure my own thoughts, I tried to make matters better by making them worse. A little way down the street was a barroom. Its windows were brightly lighted, casting a warm shining glow out into the foggy twilight, and I could hear me laughing inside. I went in, threw my shilling on the bar and called for whisky. It was strong raw stuff and made my throat burn, but standing there by the bar I felt a little self-esteem come back and said to myself that I was not beaten yet. I pushed the change back to the bartender and asked for another glass of the same.
I remember telling some one loudly who I was and declaring that I was the greatest actor in London. Somebody paid for more drinks and I drank again and told very witty stories and became amazingly clever and successful, laughing loudly and boasting of my dancing.
I did dance, and there was great applause, and more drinks and a great deal of noise, and I became fast friends with some one whom I promised to give a fine part in my next play and we drank again. In a word; I got gloriously drunk.
I woke up some time the next day in an alley, feeling very ill and more discouraged and depressed than before. When I slowly realized what had happened and that I had not a cent in the world, nor anything else but the rumpled, dirty clothes I wore, I sat with my head in my hands and groaned and loathed the thought of living. I did not want ever to stir again, but after a while I got up dizzily and managed to come out into the street. I knew I must do something.
I was in the North End of London. The dingy warehouses and dirty cobbled streets, through which the heavy vans rumbled, drawn by big, clumsy-footed horses, reminded me of the days in Covent Garden market, and I thought of the way I had lived there and wondered if I could find something to do there now. The thought of the Strand, where I had walked so many weeks, was hideous to me. I hated it.
"Oh go on!"
I said to myself then that I would never be an actor again.
I found a watering trough and washed in it, splashing the cold water over my head until I felt refreshed. I determined not to go back to my lodgings, the few things I had left there would settle the small score and I did not want to face the landlady. The thought of my mother was more than I could face, too, but I said to myself that Mrs. Dobbs would keep her until I could get some work and send her the rent. Then I set out to hunt for a job.
I found one that afternoon. It was hard work, rolling heavy casks from one end of a warehouse to the other and helping to load them on vans. I was about fifteen at the time and slight, but some way I managed to do the work, though aching in every muscle long before the day was over. I got ten shillings a week and permission to sleep in the vans in the court behind the warehouse. I held the place almost a week before the foreman lost patience with me and found some one else to take my place.
I had made friends with several of the men, and one of them got me a place as driver for a milk company. This was easier work, though I had to be at it soon after midnight, driving through the cold dark morning, the horses almost pulling my arms from the sockets with every toss of their heavy heads, and delivering the milk in dark area-ways, where I stumbled sleepily on the steps. I had money enough now to pay for lodging in a dirty room without a window in a cheap lodging house, and I breakfasted and lunched on buns and stolen milk. I could not bring myself to visit my mother, but I sent her a few shillings in a letter and wrote that I was well and busy, so that she need not worry.
Then one morning the loss of the stolen milk was discovered. I had been unusually hungry and drunk too much of it. The boss swore at me furiously, and again I was out of a job. I was wandering up the street wondering what I could do next when I saw a great crowd about the door of a glass factory. It was still early, about four o'clock in the morning, but hundreds of men and boys were massed there waiting. I pushed my way into the crowd and asked what had happened.
Most of the boys looked at me sullenly and would not answer, but one of them showed me an advertisement. It read: "Boy wanted to work in glass factory. Seven shillings a week." My heart gave a leap, I might be the lucky one! I pushed as close to the door as I could and waited. At seven o'clock the door opened and the crowd began to sway in excitement, each one crying out eager words to the man in the doorway.
I climbed nimbly up the back of the man before me, and gripping his neck with my knees, called vigorously, "Here I am, sir!" My theatrical training had taught me how to use my voice, the man heard me above the uproar and looked at me.
"I want an experienced boy in the cooling room," he said. "Had any experience?"
"Oh, yes, sir!" I answered, while the man on whose back I crouched tried to pull me down.
"All right, come in and I'll try you," the man in the doorway answered, and while the others fell back, disappointed, I crushed through the crowd and rushed in.
The work proved to be carrying bottles from the furnace room to the cooling place. I went at it with a will, hurrying from the terrifically heated room into the cold air with the heavy trays and back again as fast as I could. No matter how fast I ran there were always more bottles waiting than I could get out in time and the half-naked men, sweltering in the furnace heat, swore at me while I jumped back and forth. At noon, too exhausted to eat, I lay down in a corner to rest, but before my aching muscles had stopped throbbing the afternoon work began and the foreman was calling to me to hurry.
My head ached with a queer jumping pain and I was so dizzy that I dropped a tray of bottles and blundered into the edge of the door more than once, but I shut my teeth tight and kept on. I did not mean to lose that job. It meant nearly two dollars a week.
I kept at it till late that afternoon, dripping with perspiration while my teeth chattered and my legs grew more unsteady with every trip. Then, as I bent before a furnace to pick up a tray there was a sudden glare of light and heat, a tremendous, crashing explosion. Everything swirled into flame and then into darkness.
When I came to myself again I was in an infirmary bed, just a mass of burning pain wrapped in bandages, and I heard myself saying vigorously, while some tried to quiet me, "I am the greatest actor in London. I tell you I am the greatest actor in London."
"Oh go on!"