Fiction - Short Stories (3)
1. Miss Birchington’s Love Story
2. My Good Fairy
3. A Dream; and a Deduction
4. A Queer Theatrical Engagement
Miss Birchington’s Love Story
Nottinghamshire Guardian (Supplement) (Saturday, 10 December, 1898 - p.1).
[PUBLISHED BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT.]
MISS BIRCHINGTON’S LOVE
By ROBERT BUCHANAN,
Author of “God and the Man,” “The Shadow of the
Sword,” “Effie Hetherington,” &c., &c.
1.—THE FIRST CHRISTMAS EVE,
It was the morning of the day immediately preceding the Christmas anniversary, and the weather, for a wonder, was all that a lover of old customs and associations could desire. The wind had gone up into the north, it had snowed during the night, and the upland marshes and distant hills were sprinkled with a white sheet of lawn, over which the sun, red and round as a floating coloured balloon, glimmered down through folds of frosty mist. Even the little town of Deal itself, where the snow seldom lies long, was covered with snow, more of which was melting in the narrow streets. The sea was calm, and still white mists hung over the Goodwins and the distant Channel.
In those days Deal was little frequented, even during the summer; it was still amphibious, old-fashioned, sleepy, and dull, while in winter it might almost have been said to hybernate, so quiet and still it remained from month to month. The very fishermen were slow and silent, going forth in the night and coming back in the early morning, to be greeted on the shore by their patient wives and children, and by a few old sea-captains and retired naval officers who had settled down in the sleepy town to end their days.
On the morning of which we write the streets were, comparatively speaking, lively. Weather-beaten men were tramping to and fro and drifting sociably from inn to inn, ladies, young and old, were shopping, the old captains were gathering on the shore with telescopes tucked under their arms, and boys and girls were pelting each other with snowballs at the street corners. Wherever a shop was open with anything interesting on view a little group was gathered. In front of “Birchington’s Library,” just out of the main street, there was quite a crowd.
“Birchington’s Library,” so-called, was established in an old-fashioned gabled building, consisting of a shop with a double frontage, a large room at the rear of the same, and one or two living rooms on the floor above. This building was one of the oldest edifices in the town, and had once, some generations previously, been a private dwelling. For nearly fifty years, however, “Birchington’s” had flung out the sign of enlightenment and useful knowledge to the locality. Beginning in a very small way as an emporium for toys, fancy goods, sweetmeats, and picture-books, it had gradually grown and increased, so that at the date we write of it was the solitary circulating library in the town, and the only place for the sale of “new books” from London.
On the present occasion the windows were brilliant with showily-bound volumes, coloured engravings, ornaments for the parlour and bedroom, trays of cheap jewellery, and Christmas cards. On an illuminated card suspended against one of the centre panes was the inscription, “Birchington’s Circulating Library. All the latest Works. Subscriptions received within.”
The little crowd, gathered in front of the shop, was ever renewed, as it melted away, by the advent of new comers. Inside, Miss Birchington and her solitary assistant, a young girl of fifteen, were very busy attending to the wants of at least half a dozen customers—two old ladies in quest of wool for fancy work, a servant girl sent by her mistress for the newest novel in three volumes, a little boy eager to purchase a paper kite, the younger Miss Deane from the Misses Deane’s Academy for young ladies, and Captain Sandgate, of the Coastguard, a bluff white-haired old mariner approaching the seventies.
The two persons last named had not come hither to purchase anything. The Captain was lolling against the counter and looking on, while the young girl attended to the customers, and Miss Deane, a mature maiden lady of forty, with a somewhat severe cast of countenance, was whispering to Miss Birchington at the back of the shop.
At first, a hasty glance at Miss Birchington, christened Esther by her pious father, showed a fair girlish face, with a high and somewhat narrow brow, fair hair arranged primly on each side of the forehead, a well-cut and somewhat decided mouth. Even her greatest admirer could not have called Esther beautiful; her enemies indeed, young ladies of more showy and belligerent attractions, described her as “plain.” The fact that she was very short sighted and wore spectacles, did not add to her attractions. A closer scrutiny, however, showed that the girl—she was only two and twenty, though she looked somewhat older—was by no means destitute of womanly charms. Her figure was full and graceful, and her hands and feet perfect, her bearing refined and ladylike, and her face, a little sad in repose, full of indescribable gentleness and sweetness. On the present occasion she looked really pretty, for her features were flushed with a rosy light and wreathed in smiles.
“It is really true then, Esther,” Miss Deane was saying, “that you are going to marry him?”
Esther smiled and nodded, glancing somewhat nervously towards Captain Sandgate, who stood a little distance off, in an attitude of attention, listening.
“Well, I am surprised,” exclaimed Miss Deane, still whispering. “You don’t mind me saying that, do you? I’m sure I don’t know why, but we none of us thought—”
Esther interrupted her with a light rippling laugh, that seemed to well right up from her heart.
“I’m sure I never did either,” she replied. “I’d almost made up my mind to be an old maid like aunt, and to carry on the business till I died. But that’s all changed now, and of course I’m not sorry.”
“Then the business is for sale?” inquired the elder lady, glancing round the shop critically.
“Yes, I—I think so,” said Esther, “I shall dispose of it if I can get a good offer. Mr. Bellairs thinks I ought to do so— he’s rather proud, you see, and objects to my being in trade.”
“It seems a pity; you’ve got along so well since your aunt died. Well, dear, I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy! You don’t mind my saying so, but I’ve heard that Mr. Bellairs has been rather gay.”
Esther laughed again—the same fresh hearty laugh, full of abundant happiness.
“I don’t mind in the least,” she answered. “I know he’s good and kind, and a perfect gentleman.”
They shook hands, Miss Deane giving Esther a sympathetic squeeze and a look in which pity and envy seemed interblended; then, with a stately inclination of the head to the Captain, she left the shop.
The shop was now empty save for Captain Sandgate, who leant against the counter nodding his grey head approvingly, while Esther, whose face looked quite radiant, leant over and arranged some articles on the counter.
“You’ve a kind heart, Miss Esther,” said the Captain, “a kind feeling heart. The little ’uns ’ll miss you when you go away.”
“I don’t know that I’m going away at all, Captain Sandgate,” replied Esther.
“But the business is for sale, I hear, and Jack Bellairs told me ’tother night that he thought of living in London.”
“Nothing is settled,” said Esther quietly, with a blush.
“Well, good luck and fair weather go with you, Miss, wherever you go!” cried the mariner. “I knew you when you was a little pale-faced gel, and I knew your father and mother—aye, and your aunt too, who brought you up arter they was dead and gone.”
“And believe me,” the Captain continued, “I never thought that you would marry! When I first heard the news you could have knocked me down with a feather! And to Jack Bellairs, too! ‘handsome Jack,’ as they call him! ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘wonders will never cease!’”
At this fresh reminder of the general feeling concerning her, Esther looked somewhat annoyed, but in a moment her face brightened again, and she said cheerfully,
“Everybody seems to feel as you do, Captain Sandgate. Everybody seems to have decided that I ought to have remained single. I’m sure,” she added, laughing, “I ask everybody’s pardon!”
“And when is it to be?” demanded the Captain.
“Oh, some day. Very soon, perhaps!”
“The sooner the better, Miss Esther, if your mind’s made up. I don’t believe in long courtships. Mind you let me know in good time, for I’m going to send you a wedding present.”
So saying, he extended his hand, took Esther’s hand in it, and shook it warmly, and walked from the shop. No other customer presenting himself for the moment, Esther retired into the back room, a large comfortably furnished parlour, with old library books arranged all round on shelves on the walls, and sat down by the fire. The flush of peaceful happiness had not faded from her face, her eyes were full of thoughtful light, as she folded her little hands on her knees, and sank into a brown study.
Her thoughts went back to the time when, a little orphan girl of six, she was left to the care of her maiden aunt Rebecca, who then presided over the library and fancy emporium. Rebecca Birchington was a severe yet kindly woman of strong evangelical tendencies, and had first thriven in her business through the excellence of her religious connections. Armed in piety and virtue, she had kept a careful eye over the morals of her customers. No works of doubtful teaching were ever sold over her counter or circulated among the subscribers. As time went on the business had grown, and she had saved a considerable sum of money; and when she died, about a year before the opening of your tale, she had left all she possessed to her niece and faithful assistant, Esther.
Brought up under the aunt’s care, Esther had lived a life of hard work and comparative seclusion. From morning to night she was at work in the little emporium, and her early maidenhood was illuminated by no girlish romance whatever. Up to the age of maturity she had never even had a sweetheart. True, like all young girls, she had her day dreams, but she kept them to herself, and lived unnoticed by wooers of any age.
Shortly before her aunt died, however, she had a surprise. One Mr. Matthew Grover, a younger partner in the firm of Williams and Grover, solicitors, appeared in the shop one day, and actually made an offer for her hand. This same younger partner was nearer fifty than forty years of age, a stern person of strongly pious leanings, and, quite apart from his age, not at all the person to captivate the heart of a young girl.
The aunt favoured his suit, but to his surprise and indignation, Esther positively refused him, alleging as her excuse that she never intended to marry. Shortly after her aunt passed away, Grover again appeared on the scene, only to be again rejected.
By this time it was common talk that Esther would never marry, but would die like her aunt, a maiden, in single hearted control of the library and emporium which she inherited. For the young men of the locality she appeared to possess no charm, and indeed her manner towards them was invariably cold, and even forbidding.
During the summer following her aunt’s decease, however, a stranger had appeared upon the scene—a young and apparently well-to-do gentleman from London, who took rooms at the Green Dragon, and had an extensive acquaintance among the retired sea captains of the district. Jack Bellairs was only five and twenty, well educated, well connected, and altogether charming. He had not been long in the little town when all the marriageable girls were running after him. He laughed and flirted with them all, but made serious advances to none; possibly, as the uncharitable surmised, because their worldly possessions did not equal their worldly attractions. Well, how it happened no one knew, and no one was able to guess, but before many weeks had passed handsome Jack was “walking out” with Miss Esther Birchington, of the Library, and before the winter fairly set in it was rumoured on every side that the two were “engaged.”
Naturally, there was no little local indignation. For poor Esther to be engaged at all was an impertinence; but for her to be engaged to an absolute Prince Charming from London, at whom the prettiest girl in Deal would have jumped, was a positive outrage. Of course, the charitable assumption was that her personal charms were no factor whatever in the affair. The man was mercenary, it was whispered, and merely wanted to possess her money. For money she had, close upon a thousand pounds in hard cash, besides the business of “Birchington’s Library.”
Whether or not the cruel whisper was correct, it never reached the ear of Esther, and even had it done so, she would have disdained to listen to it, for Bellairs had completely won her love and confidence, and she thought him the truest, noblest, most perfect creature in all the world. His kiss—the only man’s kiss she had ever known, had transformed the gentle retiring girl into an adoring and self-possessed woman—and that Christmas tide, when she was momently expecting to see her lover, who had arranged to spend Christmas in Deal and to settle then and there the arrangements for the marriage, she was supremely happy.
II.—“A BOLT FROM THE BLUE.”
It was the Christmas Eve. The emporium had been closed early, and Esther sat by herself in the parlour or library waiting for her lover, whom she expected every moment. A bright fire was burning in the grate, the supper table was spread with tea and all sorts of dainties, and Esther’s little attendant, trimly dressed in cotton gown and cap, was in attendance. Outside the wind was whistling, and more snow was falling, but all within was bright and full of Christmas cheer.
Eight o’clock had just struck when there was a knock at the side door. Esther sprang up with a flush of expectation and ran to open the door.
“Good evening, Miss Birchington,” said a voice in the darkness, “Can I speak to you?”
Her heart sank, for she recognised the voice in a moment; it was not that of her sweetheart, but that of Matthew Grover, the solicitor.
“I cannot speak to you to-night, Mr. Grover,” she said.
“You must, though,” said the man, pushing past her. “My business won’t keep.”
He walked into the room—a short, thick-set, grey-haired man, with a sharp, fox-like face, keen black eyes, clean shaven lips, and grey side-whiskers. She followed him, and looked at him in amaze, for his face was white and strange, and his lips were set cruelly.
“What is it?” cried Esther, trembling in spite of herself.
“I’ll tell you, if you’ll send the girl away,” said Grover; “it’s private, you know. Come, take my advice, and do as I tell you!”
Utterly amazed, Esther told her little servant to retire upstairs, and then, trembling still, waited for her visitor to explain.
“If you’ll sit down, Miss Esther,” he said, motioning her to a chair, “I’ll tell you why I’m here.” He added, as she obeyed him, “It’s only right that you should know, but before you do I want to say to you that I bear you no malice, and that I still wish you well. I was truly fond of you, Miss Esther, when I asked you to be my wife, and I’m truly fond of you still. That’s why I want to prove to your that I should be very sorry to see you in trouble.”
She gazed at him in wonder, dreading every moment to hear her lover at the door.
“I don’t understand,” she murmured.
“You’ll understand soon enough,” said Grover, seating himself opposite to her, and drawing out a handful of papers tied with red tape. “First let me ask you if it’s true, as I’ve heard, that you’re going to marry Mr. John Bellairs, of London?”
“It is quite true,” said Esther, with an angry flush.
“I thought so, and of course you wouldn’t be going to marry him if you didn’t think him a gentleman and a man of honour. Now I’m going to ask you another question. Have you ever lent him any money?”
With an impatient cry Esther sprang to her feet.
“How dare you ask such a question!” she exclaimed.
“No offence,” said the lawyer dryly, “Well, if you haven’t lent him money, have you ever done as good? Have you ever put your name to any document which he could turn into money?”
Again Esther exclaimed in indignation; but as she did so Grover drew from the documents he held a small piece of blue paper, which he placed on the table before her, still holding the edges of it between his fingers.
“Look there, Miss Esther. Is that your handwriting?”
She looked down at the paper and read as follows:
“Three months after date pay to my order the sum of five hundred pounds for value received.
Signed, John Bellairs.”
and across the paper was written in a feminine hand,
“Accepted, payable at the London and County Bank, Deal Branch, Esther Birchington.”
As she looked at the writing, Esther felt as if her very heart grew dead within her; all the colour faded out of her face, her very lips grew ashen pale. She looked and looked, and tried to speak, but could not utter a word. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Grover spoke on, and gave her time to collect her ideas.
“Now, Miss Esther, that document has come into my hands, and in just a month from now it will be presented for payment. I’ve had a suspicion from the first, however, that there was something wrong about it—something very wrong.”
She felt his keen eyes fixed upon her as she murmured:
“In other words,” said Grover, thrusting forward his face to hers, “this bill is a forgery, and I’ll tell you how it has come about. This man Bellairs, being hard up, and knowing you were so soon to be married, has imitated your signature and cashed this bill, managing to arrange that no questions should be asked by anybody, and no reference made to acceptor, till the document was presented for payment. By that time he’d be safe enough, for your money would be his, and—do you see, Miss Esther?”
There was no mistaking the man’s tone of secret exultation. He reckoned, however, without his match, for by this time Esther had recovered her self-possession and determined how to act. Their eyes met. Then, deadly pale, but strangely firm, and forcing a cold smile, Esther said:
“If that is all you have to say to me, Mr. Grover, I will wish you good evening!”
The man started as if he had received a blow. His eyes glared, and he exclaimed:
“Take care, Miss Esther! Mind what you’re about. I know this acceptance isn’t your handwriting, and a word from me will put your lover in a felon’s dock!”
Drawing herself up, Esther pointed to the door.
“Please go,” she said, “I—I expect Mr. Bellairs. When that bill is presented, my signature will be honoured, for I daresay you know I have the money at the Bank!”
“Is it, or is it not, your signature?” cried the lawyer.
She looked him full in the face.
“Yes,” she replied. Then crossing to the door she threw it open. He gave another wild look at her, uttered an oath, and passed forth.
* * * * * * * *
An hour later Esther sat by the fire white as death. She had sent the little maid to bed, and remained up alone. What she had endured during that hour of agony she never fully realised. She had neither cried nor wept, her eyes were quite dry, but she felt like a dead woman sitting in her shroud.
All the beautiful dream of her young life had melted like a castle in the air. The man she had loved and trusted was a scoundrel who had committed a disgraceful crime, a crime so mean and dastardly as to be beyond the pale of forgiveness. Her one chance of happiness as wife and mother was gone for ever.
She never for a moment doubted her lover’s guilt. Her instinct told her that he was guilty. It was clear to her now, moreover, horribly clear, that her attraction for him had been the money she had inherited.
A footstep without; a knock at the door. She rose, walked to the door, and listened.
“Who is there?” she asked, and her own voice sounded hollow and far away.
“Open, Esther!” cried a cheery voice. “It’s me!”
His voice! Without hesitating she opened the door, and admitted him. He would have taken her in his arms, but she pushed him aside and closed the door behind him.
He seemed a little rebuffed at his reception, but only shrugged his shoulders, laughing as he walked into the sitting- room. He was a tall, handsome young man, with fair hair and moustache, light brown eyes, and a face a little worn with dissipation. He was stylishly dressed, and his manners were free and easy.
“Well, little woman,” he cried, “here I am at last, and jolly glad I am to get down here again. But what’s the matter? You look rather queer.”
“I’m not very well,” replied Esther, quietly. “Sit down. I want to talk to you.”
He made another movement to catch her in his arms, but she held up her hand as if to avert a blow, and shrank away, looking as white as death.
“Little prude,” he murmured, sinking into the arm chair. “Well, you’ll soon be my wife, and we’ll change all that. May I smoke a cigarette?”
He suited the action to the word, and began to smoke. Then, as he did so, he caught another glimpse of her face, and was startled by her expression.
“Good God!” he exclaimed, “why do you look like that? Is anything the matter? Is anybody dead?”
She looked at him steadfastly through her spectacles, and though her poor eyes were dim, her voice scarcely faltered as she said:—
“Yes, someone is dead. The man I loved—the man I was to have married. I know now that he never cared for me, and that all he wanted was to rob me of the little I possessed.”
It was his turn now to grow white and fearful. He guessed the truth at once, and sat shrinking and trembling as she told him what she knew.
“Is it true?” she demanded, finally. “Did you forge my name and take that money?”
He tried to defend himself, but his manner of so doing was full of confession. He sought to justify his conduct, he told her that his extremity had been great, tat in his desperation and shame—
She interrupted him.
“If you had come to me and told me, I would have given you all I had. You preferred to deceive me, to lie to me. I thought you a man of honour; I find you no better than a common thief!”
He sprang up, crying and protesting. He appealed to her, and tried again to take her in his arms. He swore that he had always loved her truly, and would make amends. She listened quietly, but her face remained grey and stern.
“Do not let us talk of it,” she said; “I prefer to speak of yourself. If you will tell me frankly about your affairs I will see if I can help you.”
Encouraged by her deliberate manner, he told her that he had lost large sums in betting, and that if he had not secured that money he would have been utterly disgraced. He meant after they had married to leave England, and to take her with him; he would turn over a new leaf; he would start the world afresh; he would prove his repentance and his devotion if she would only forgive him.
“If I refuse to pay that money?” she demanded, “what then?”
“Why, then, of course, disgrace, prosecution, ruin,” he explained, with tears streaming down his face.
Then he fell at her feet, clung to her dress, and implored her to take pity on him.
“Listen to me,” said the girl. “You need not be afraid—the money is there at the bank, and shall be paid!” Then, as he gasped his thanks, she added, “There is nearly five hundred pounds more. I will give you half that sum, but I must keep the rest!”
“My God, how good you are!” he sobbed.
She turned from him trembling, and going to a small bureau near the window of the room sat down, drew out from a drawer a small cheque book, and began to write. He rose to his feet, watching her fearfully.
How her hand trembled! How the heart sank within her! But she filled up the cheque, and returned to him, holding it in her hand.
“I will give you this money,” she said, “if you swear to leave England as you intended, and never let me see your face again.”
Again he sobbed and appealed to her, avowing his penitence and devotion. She listened to him wearily, and then placing the cheque in his hand, said:—
“It is late, and I am very tired. Please go!”
“Esther!” he cried, “My own darling little Esther! You don’t mean, you cannot mean, that it’s all over between us? I love you—I do, I do—and if you’ll marry me, I’ll prove it. Forgive, forgive!”
She pushed him gently from her, saying:
“I forgive you, but I shall never marry you. I could never marry a man whom I did not honour and respect. Don’t think I’m hard! I’m only sick and sorry! I shall always be glad to hear of your welfare—to know, above all, that you have become an honest man!”
He saw that words were useless—and, indeed, he was awed and stupefied by her calm determination. Full of shame and contrition he leant towards her, and said:
“Good bye, then! You’ve been awfully good to me—I shall never forget how good. I’ll—I’ll try to do as you say!”
His lips touched her forehead, and she scarcely shrank away, for she felt it was the last kiss she would ever receive from a man’s lips. For a moment he hesitated, making a last appeal, but finding it was hopeless, he wrung her hand with a wild sob, and passed out into the night.
A few hours later, when the dim light of the Christmas morning crept into the room, Esther Birchington was seated, with her hands folded on her knees, looking at vacancy with red aching eyes. The storm of grief had come and gone, the sobs and moans, which had troubled the long night after Bellairs’ departure, had ceased at last. She felt like an old woman, friendless and feeble. It was over—her dream of love—her foolish simple dream. Thenceforth she was alone in all the world.
III.—THE SECOND CHRISTMAS EVE.
So it came to pass, after all, that the popular anticipation was fulfilled, and that Miss Birchington did not marry. Bellairs disappeared from the scene, and although there were many versions of the reason why the marriage was broken off, the real truth was known to only one person—Grover, the solicitor, who was man enough to hold his tongue. Esther remained at the emporium and library, and there was no further talk of selling the business.
Fifteen years passed away, and “Birchington’s Library” was still in the same place, with the same toys and fancy goods in the window, and the same pale gentle face behind the counter. In those 15 years, however, great changes had taken place, and round the corner, in the main street, there was a splendid new establishment on the modern scale, where all the new books were to be bought at discount prices, and where the newest works in fiction and belles lettres were supplied by arrangement with Mudie’s. The tide of fortune had turned thitherward and the old fashioned shop was forsaken. As the years went on, “Birchington’s” was almost utterly forgotten.
For Esther, instead of moving with the times, had stood still, with little or no heart to improve the occasion. The old busy spirit had altogether gone out of her, and she had changed into a weary-looking woman, with threads of grey in her hair, and few notes of joy in her gentle voice. She was still comparatively young, but she felt quite old and weary.
Times had been so bad that for several years she had been losing money, and had drawn on, and almost exhausted, her little surplus store. So the business was again for sale, though it seemed very doubtful if anyone would care to venture on the purchase. In any case, it was clear that it could not be continued at so great a loss, and sale or no sale, Esther knew that she must look out for other means of living, and another home.
Christmas Eve again, and seasonable weather, with storms of snow and sleet. The sea was roaring, for the wind was south-west. The usual old sea captains and retired mariners were struggling against the wind on the shore, and the streets were full of folk coming and going. There were few people this time at “Birchington’s,” but at the great Emporium round the corner there was a blaze of light, and a wondering crowd. Early in the evening Esther closed the shop, and sat alone in the parlour, looking sadly at the fire.
In a little time she knew she must leave the old place; and she was sorry, for it had been her home so long. As her thoughts went back to the past she took off her spectacles, which were dim with the moisture from her eyes. Then, while the wind shook the house, she went to the bureau and took out an old daguereotype—the faded picture of a smiling and handsome young man, with a moustache and curling hair.
Her tears fell upon it. She looked at it long and thoughtfully, and then, raising it to her lips, kissed it tenderly.
“How handsome he was!” she sighed. “How happy he made me before, before——”
There was a knock at the side door, a quick eager knock. She started, placed down the picture, and listened. The knock was repeated.
“Some one is there,” she thought. “Who can it be at this hour?”
She walked to the door.
“Who is there?” she asked.
No voice answered her, but the knock was given again. She opened the door and looked out into the night. A man stood in the shadow looking at her.
“Miss Birchington?” said a deep voice, and at the same moment the figure stepped into the doorway. Grown more and more short-sighted of late, Esther gazed at the stranger through her spectacles.
“Can I speak to you,” he said, “on business?”
Before she knew he had passed into the parlour and stood gazing down at her—a tall, powerful man, with moustache and beard. He wore a seaman’s suit of blue serge, and his face was bronzed and weatherbeaten.
Even yet she did not know him, but stood looking at him and wondering.
“I’m afraid you’ve forgotten me,” he said, taking off a wide-awake hat which he had worn low down over his forehead. “But I’ve come back—better late than never—to pay you back that money you lent me!”
Then, in a flash as it were, she recognised him, her heart leapt, and she staggered as if about to fall, but he caught her in his arms.
“Esther!” he cried.
But she released herself and shrank away.
“Why have you come here?” she murmured.
“Didn’t I tell you? To pay back my debt! All those years I’ve had only one thought—to do that, and to ask your forgiveness. I’m a rich man now, Esther,” he said, gently, “and I owe all I have to your goodness. If you hadn’t saved me, God knows how I might have ended! But I did as you told me; I turned over a new leaf, and year after year, as I put by money, I remembered the dear little girl who had been so good to me, and whom I’d left here in Deal. P’raps I didn’t love you then, Esther, but as the time wore on I loved you more and more! I did, by God! And—and—I’ve never married. I swore I’d never marry till I’d paid you back and asked your pardon—and here I am to beg you once more to forgive me, this Christmas Eve!”
He paused with a cry and caught her in his arms again. She had fainted.
Did she forgive him? That, we feel, is all the reader seeks to know; all the rest, Esther’s timorous struggle, her lingering doubt, her growing sense of light and happiness, he will be able to surmise. Well, let the truth be told in one sentence. “Birchington’s Library” still exists, although it has passed finally into other hands, but popular prophecy was stultified in the end, for Esther Birchington did not die an old maid after all!
My Good Fairy
The Star (Christchurch, New Zealand) (Saturday, 24 December, 1898 - p.7).
MY GOOD FAIRY.
A LONDON EPISODE.
(By ROBERT BUCHANAN.)
Author of “God and the Man,” “The Shadow
and the Sword,” “Stormy Waters,”
“Father Anthony,” “The Wedding
Ring,” etc., etc.
[ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.]
Far back in the early Sixties, that is to say, about five and thirty years ago, I was living in the top room, or garret, of a lodginghouse in Stamford Street—a dismal thoroughfare which runs at a right angle between the Blackfriars and the Waterloo Roads. I had come to London with the conventional half-crown in my pocket, to seek my fortune as a literary man, and I was going through the usual preliminaries of dishallucination, disappointment, and semi-starvation.
My room, which I had already occupied about a year, was what is technically known as a bed-sitting-room, drearily furnished in the hideous style of the period, with a few rickety chairs, an old arm-chair stuffed with horse hair, a four-post bedstead with grimy chintz curtains, window curtains to match, and a píece of unclean and dilapidated carpet. There was a tiny fireplace, communicating with the chimney, which smoked confoundedly whenever the fire was lighted. For the use of this room I paid the princely sum of six shillings a week.
Poor as the place was, and exposed in times of storm to draughts from all the airs of heaven, I was happy enough there, and at night time especially, when the curtains were drawn, the lamp burning, my pipe lit, and my books and writing materials spread before me, I asked for no snugger quarters. At twenty years of age one can be contented anywhere, and is almost independent of physical conditions.
But the worst of the life I led was not its extreme poverty, amounting not unfrequently to absolute privation, but its loneliness. I had not a single relation or friend in London, and almost the only persons with whom I exchanged communication from time to time were the newspaper editors for whom I occasionally did a little work. How often in those solitary days did I wander up and down the crowded Strand, or loiter on Waterloo Bridge, or wander away into St. James’s Park, yearning all the time for a kindly greeting, for the touch of a friendly hand. I was shabby and seedy as well as hard up, and the only acquaintances I might have made were the idle loafers whose vulgarity and ignorance repelled me, and whose room was better than their company. Now and then, indeed, on the lonely bridges, I dropped into talk with the weary women who haunted the gaslight, and felt pitifully drawn to them for the sake of their sad humanity. I was poor as they were, and knowing that, they often gave me a sisterly word.
All this time I was writing, writing, writing; planning masterpieces which were destined never to reach completion, dreaming of wealth and fame, and scribbling numberless things to boil the pot. Work, however, was difficult to get, and when it was got the pay was miserable. A positive snowstorm of manuscript floated from my garret to the offices of newspapers and magazines, only to return again with the melancholy formula, “Declined with thanks.” Still, by dint of constant attempts and endless perseverance, I managed to scrape together a pittance, on which I lived.
The one supreme object of my ambition was to be a dramatic author, to write pieces for the stage. When a small boy, living in a country town, I had been a constant theatre-goer, and I had once perpetrated the words of a pantomime for a country manager. From that first effort I had passed on to tragedies and comedies in five acts, domestic dramas, and even farces and operettas, and every month or two added another to my list of unacted productions. Copies of these great efforts had been duly sent to London managers, sometimes to be returned ignominiously like my other literary efforts, more often to be lost altogether in the dark abysses of the managerial room, but in every case never to be opened or read.
Meanwhile I still haunted the theatres whenever I could scrape up enough money for a seat in the pit or gallery. I saw all the great actors, and most of the smaller ones, and I seldom or ever missed a new piece.
Let me at once confess it, I was still, in spite of all my disenchantments, a believer in Fairyland, and London to me was fairy ground. The spirit of Dickens still dwelt there, and again and again, by lying in wait near Maiden Lane, I had seen the Great Enchanter himself pass by, carrying a handbag and journeying to his office in Wellington Street. He had taught me to believe in humble happiness, human worth, and the fairy element in real life—so that the very streets were enchanted and the very houses seemed inhabited by kindly gnomes and elves. For, remember, it was early in the sixties, and the mocking modern spirit was not yet born. Even the portly gentleman in the spectacles whom I could see any day trotting to the Garrick Club, and who was then described as the “cynical Mr. Thackeray,” had not abandoned Fairyland altogether, and had indeed written romances for grown-up men and children. Nowadays, as you know, he is classed as a mere old-fashioned sentimentalist—almost as impossible as his greater literary brother.
As I have said, I believed in Fairyland, and the purpose of this story is to explain how fully my belief was justified.
I have said that I had no friends; certainly I had none outside my lodgings, and as I seldom or never set eyes on my landlady, and as my simple wants were attended to by a sort of red-haired female hurricane (who went and came with a succession of snorts, and was altogether too hard-worked to be capable of any conversation) I could scarcely be said to have companionship at home. Of the other dwellers in this place I knew little or nothing, though I fear some of them were of rather doubtful reputation. The only other room on the same floor as mine was occupied by a printer’s compositor, who was out all night and sound asleep in bed all day; a sort of Box, who left behind him when he came and went an odour suggestive of mingled printer’s ink and ardent spirits.
It was not till I had been residing in the house for some months that I became aware of a fellow-lodger of the opposite sex, who occupied two small rooms, a sitting and a bedroom, on the floor below mine, and who appeared to come and go mysteriously at all hours of the day and night. Now and then I heard her singing to the accompaniment of a very bad piano; and the songs she sang were not at all edifying, in so far as they consisted of the music hall ditties popular in the early Sixties, such as:
A pork-pie hat and a little white feather,
And knickerbockers for the dirty weather,
In the Strand! in the Strand! in the Strand!
I wish I was with Nancy,
I do! I do!
In a second floor for evermore
To live and die with Nancy!
The voice, moreover, struck me as a little shrill and vulgar. For this reason among others, my impression of my neighbour was not favourable.
Nor was it rendered more favourable by an occasional glimpse caught of her on the stairs or in the street. She dressed rather loudly, and there was something on her cheeks that looked like rouge. Yet she could not have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and her face was decidedly pretty, her hair a bright auburn, and her eyes a sparkling blue. I wish I could add that her manners had the “repose that suits the caste of Vere de Vere,” but alas, they hadn’t! She was, on the contrary, rather a loud young lady, much given to whistling on the stairs, banging doors, and giggling in and out of season.
And yet, little as I suspected it, she was a Good Fairy; a real substantial shining Good Fairy, of the sort that the adorable Dickens himself had dreamed of. See how difficult it is to judge by appearances! For a long time I did not understand her, and fancied indeed that she was no better than she should be.
That the reader may picture to himself the two leading performers in the little drama that was to ensue, let him be reminded once more that it was the early Sixties, and that both myself and my Fairy wore the awful costume of the period. He must picture to himself then, firstly, a curly-headed youth in a cut-away coat, pegtop trousers, and boots with elastic sides, and secondly, a roguish, bright-eyed girl, who wore a pork-pie hat and (crowning horror of horrors) a crinoline!
We continued from time to time to pass each other on the stairs, at first silently, but afterwards with a murmured “good morning” or “good evening.”
I was bashful to excess in those days; added to which I was, as I have suggested, a little doubtful of my neighbour. Sometimes when we met she would draw aside to let me pass, and stand looking at me with roguish eyes, while I coloured up to the ears and answered her careless greeting. Lonely as I was, those meetings soon became a pleasant break in my life’s monotony, and often when I heard my neighbour ascending I would slip downstairs for the mere pleasure of passing her.
Who was she? What was her name, and what her occupation? These were the questions I began to ask myself, and to put to the tempestuous maid of all work, who could give me very little information. Gradually, however, I discovered what I wished to know.
Her name was “Miss Costello,” and she was engaged in some capacity or other at one of the Strand theatres. I consulted a programme of the theatre in question, but her name was not there. A few nights later, however, as I sat in the back row of the pit, listening to the inanities of a Cockney burlesque, I saw, among a group of “utility” ladies, dressed in trunks and tights, the face and form I sought—those of my sprightly fellow-lodger. Our eyes met, and I fancy she recognised me, for she tittered and said something to one of her companions.
I was relieved, pleased even, to find that she was an artist of some sort. Though her name was not even mentioned in the play-bill, the manager had given her about two lines to speak, and I am bound to add that she spoke them abominably.
I was enabled now for the first time to take a good look at her; and I was surprised to see how pretty she looked in her scanty costume. She was slight and delicately formed, with dainty hands and feet, and features alive with youth and good humour. From that time forward I became a frequent visitor to the theatre, and my interest in “Miss Costello” continued to grow.
Do not run away with the notion that I was falling in love! My feeling, so far as I can remember, was one of pure friendship and human sympathy—there was a sense of companionship in looking at and listening to my fellow-lodger, though we were still almost strangers.
Late one night, however, as I was climbing garretward after a lonely stroll in the moonlit streets, I came face to face with her close to her own rooms. She had evidently just come in, and was lighting a candle at a gas jet on the landing. She smiled and nodded, and I was passing on when she called me back.
“I saw you in the front row of the pit last night,” she said, graciously.
“Yes,” I replied, “I had been there.” She tittered, and I felt horribly bashful and uncomfortable. The door of her sitting-room was open, and glancing through it I saw a shabby little chamber, with a cloth laid for supper, which consisted of bread and cheese and a glass of London porter. She followed my glance, smiled again, and led the way into the room. Scarcely knowing what I was about, I stood on the threshold hesitating.
“Come in and sit down,” she said, “unless you’re tired and want to go bed.”
I assured her that I was not at all tired and that I seldom retired to rest till the small hours in the morning.
“Bad boy!” she answered. “What makes you sit up so late?” Then before I could reply, she added, “You needn’t put down your pipe; you can smoke while I eat my supper.”
As she spoke she threw off her hat and jacket, and waved me to a chair. I sat down speechless and gazed at her while she began, still standing, to eat the bread and cheese and sip the porter.
“How long have you been living here?” she asked, after a pause, and when I told her that I had been there about a year, she looked at me thoughtfully and inquired, “What do you do? I mean, what are you?”
“I am an author!” I replied, somewhat proudly.
“An author!” I repeated.
The statement appeared to astound and puzzle her, and she looked me from head to foot with evident surprise; then her face brightened, and she laughed aloud.
“O Lord!” she exclaimed, biting through a crust with her white teeth, and shrugging her shoulders.
“Perhaps you don’t understand what I mean?” I said, annoyed at her want of respect for my vocation.
She shrugged her shoulders again, and took a sip at the porter, then looking at me slyly over the edge of the glass she smiled and observed:
“Oh, I understand well enough. What do you write? Articles, stories, newspaper stuff?”
“Anything,” I replied; “you see, I’m only a beginner, and it’s hard work before one is known. However, I am determined to get on, and if I don’t it won’t be my fault!” Then, having found my tongue, I began to feel at ease, and proceeded: “I only found out the other day that you were an actress. I thought once of going on the stage myself. Do you like acting?”
“Pretty well,” was the reply. “All my people are in the profession, and I’ve got to like it. Father was a scene painter down in Plymouth; he died there, and so did mother. I came to London with my sister two years ago, and we went on as extras at Drury Lane.”
“Where is your sister now?” I asked.
To my surprise my neighbour’s face darkened; and without making any reply, she began humming a popular tune, and walking over to the fire-place glanced at herself in a broken mirror above the mantel-piece.
“So you live here all alone?” I inquired.
“That’s about it,” she replied. “I get thirty shillings a week, and the rooms cost me twelve. I used to have one of the girls to live with me; but she was too fast to suit me, and we didn’t get on. My name isn’t Costello, that’s my stage name; my real name is Smith—Fanny Smith. What’s yours?”
I told her, and to my surprise she laughed merrily.
“They’ve got another name for you at the theatre,” she said. “They call you ‘Curly;’ and they think you’re my sweetheart.”
Her manner was so frank, and free of arrière pensée, and her mirth at the idea so contagious, that I found myself laughing also, although I rather resented the descriptive and not too respectful nickname her friends had given me. The ice once broken, I soon found myself talking freely and quite unrestrainedly to my new friend. I told her of my struggles (always, however, concealing the extremity of my privations), hinted at my ambition, and spoke, in short, as I had not spoken for many a day to any human soul. As I proceeded, her pretty face grew graver and graver; but suddenly in the midst of my talk Big Ben struck twelve, and the clocks in the surrounding streets began to chime in answer.
“Twelve o’clock,” she said, yawning and holding out her hand. “Time for bye-bye!”
“Good night, Miss Costello,” I replied, shaking her hand and passing to the door.
“Fanny’s my name,” she cried, “Miss Costello’s all rubbish! Good night.”
So I left her, and betook myself to my quarters on the floor above.
After that we met occasionally, though not so frequently as we might have done, had my new friend been less busy; for they were preparing a new piece at her theatre, and she had rather a longer part than usual, and was much occupied with preparations and constant rehearsals. Sometimes she had company; not always of her own sex, and I could hear the piano playing till long after midnight.
Another circumstance tended to keep us apart, and indeed to keep me to a great extent to my own lonely quarters. At the very time of our first meeting, things had been at a desperate pass with me financially, and they were growing worse every day. The newspapers and magazines seemed to have made a dead set at last against my contributions, and though I worked harder than ever it was hopeless labour. My few books, and such little personal ornaments as I possessed, had gone to the pawnbroker, and my wardrobe was following piece by piece. The time seemed fast approaching when I should have nothing at all to wear ! Poor as I was I was very proud, and I took care that no one suspected my desperate condition. In my brief talks with Fanny I posed as rather a prosperous person, and talked very largely about my literary prospects. I don’t know if she suspected the truth; if so, she never alluded to it, and, moreover, she was too full of her own affairs to have much time to discuss mine.
Thus it happened that as the days went on I saw less and less of my little neighbour. I knew that the new piece was successfully produced, and that she was praised for her performance in it; but I was unable to visit the theatre, being practically a prisoner in my own room.
One dismal afternoon, late in December, I was sitting all alone, wondering which prospect was the drearier, my own wretched future or the wintry street beyond my window. It wanted only a week to Christmas, and the thought of the approaching holiday time only deepened my sense of personal misery.
Suddenly I heard a soft knock at my door, and before I could call out “Come in,” the door opened, and my neighbour appeared on the threshold. She looked fresh and rosy, and wore her hat and cloak as if she had just come in from the street.
“I say, is this for you?” she said. “I found it downstairs in the lobby, and I thought I would bring it up.”
In her hand she held a brown paper parcel addressed to me. I recognised it in a moment, and went red as fire. It was one of my luckless manuscripts—a little two-act comedy, which had already been returned contemptuously by more than one London manager.
“It’s all right, thank you,” I stammered, taking the packet from her and placing it on the table. “Yes, it’s for me.”
I tried to speak cheerfully, but in point of fact the return of this manuscript was my coup de grace. All my hopes had been built on its acceptance, and I had been fondly dreaming.
“Oh dear,” cried Fanny, sympathetically, “I’m afraid I’ve brought you bad news!”
I forced a laugh.
“Not at all,” I said. “It’s only a manuscript—something I wanted an opinion about—and——”
She again interrupted me with a little cry. She was bending over the packet and reading the superscription.
“Why, it’s been to our theatre! Is it a play? Do you write plays? How funny!”
I scarcely heard her, for it had suddenly occurred to me that there might after all, be a letter inside, and I had opened the packet with trembling fingers, and found, folded in the manuscript, a half-sheet of notepaper with the following lithographed memorandum:
“Mr. Isaacson presents his compliments to Mr. (here my name was written in), and begs to return him the enclosed manuscript, which he is unable to accept for production.”
With another hollow laugh I threw the paper on the table. Then I said loftily:
“I sent it to the manager, never thinking for a moment that it would be of any use to him. He has sent it back quite politely, that’s all.”
“Why, Mr. Isaacson—your manager. I don’t suppose he has read it.”
“You may bet twenty to one on that,” returned my neighbour. “He never reads anything except the sporting papers.”
“Oh, he’s that sort of man, is he?” I said, carelessly.
“Yes,” she answered, nodding emphatically; and a beast into the bargain!”
Without caring to ask her how she came to that conclusion, I thought it advisable to change the subject.
“And how are you getting on?” I asked. “I hear you have made quite a hit this time!”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, “and I’m to have a really good part in the extravaganza at Christmas—a good speaking part, and double salary. Why haven’t you been to see me in the new piece?”
I explained that I had been so terribly busy—had my hands so full of work, etc., but I would come all in good time, and I was very glad she had been so successful. As I spoke her clear bright eyes watched me attentively and somewhat sadly. Presently she said:
“Only last night I heard Isaacson saying he’d give his head for a new comedy. The present one won’t go long, it’s too slow. I suppose yours is clever?”
I smiled, thinking in my heart that it was very clever; but I explained with dignity that I had other views for it, and that I was in communication respecting it in another quarter.
Presently she stopped me, placing her little hand on my arm.
“You’re working too hard,” she said. “You look awfully seedy.”
“Oh, I’m all right,” I responded. “Very likely I shall go out of town at Christmas for a holiday. What’s your new part to be?”
She brightened and smiled.
“Oh, a fairy—with a song and dance! Old Phillips says I shall knock them this time!”
“Who’s old Phillips?”
“Oh, a friend of mine who writes in the papers. He advises Isaacson, he does. Isaacson couldn’t get along without him.”
My eyes opened. Could she possibly be alluding to Phillips, the great dramatic author and critic, who did the theatrical reviews for the most influential newspaper of the metropolis? I asked her the question, and she nodded.
“That’s him,” she replied with ungrammatical emphasis. “He’s a good old sort, and takes quite an interest in us girls. You ought to have sent your play to him; I’d have made him read it!”
My amazement deepened. To think of Phillips—the great Phillips—before whom both managers and public trembled, being on terms of intimacy with a promoted extra lady! But of course I took the statement with a grain of salt; not believing for a moment that it had any foundation in fact.
“Well, good-bye,” said Fanny, with her usual abruptness. “I must get ready to go to the theatre. Don’t work so hard, and mind you come and see me in the new piece as soon as possible!”
So saying, she disappeared, leaving me divided between shame and despair. Despair predominated, for it seemed that I had now played my last card, and unless a miracle happened, there was nothing before me but starvation.
A week passed by, and my condition grew darker and darker. With only just enough to buy a little bread, I crawled on from day to day.
Too proud to beg, or to reveal to anyone my real condition, I would creep out at night, and walk for hours in the dismal snow-clad streets, wondering what was to become of me, looking sometimes down into the depths of the black river, and wishing I had the courage to seek a last refuge there. I saw nothing of my neighbour, indeed, I carefully avoided her, feeling that I could not have endured her pity. At last—it was the night before Christmas Eve—I stood on Waterloo Bridge, having paid my last half-penny for toll to cross. The snow was falling and it was bitterly cold. My great coat had gone long ere that, and all the previous day I had only had a mouthful of food.
I think I must have grown light-headed; for the lights of London seemed dancing wildly round me, and the living shapes that passed me seemed like ghosts in a dream. Finally, as midnight struck, I let myself into the house where I lived, and crept, half-fainting, up the stairs.
As I approached the landing below mine, I heard the sound of singing and piano playing, mingled with merry laughter; then a shuffle of feet, as if someone was dancing, and a clapping of hands. I clutched at the banister, and the whole landing seemed to rock beneath me; then, suddenly, I staggered, clutching at the door, and fell forward into empty space.
The last thing I remember was the opening of a door, the sudden flashing of lights, and then strange forms bending over me, while a voice that I seemed to know cried very far off it seemed, and in a sort of misty dream,
“Why, it’s Curly!”
When I again recovered consciousness—and it seemed that I had been tossing about for ages in a sort of troubled dream—I was lying undressed in bed. It was broad day, and looking wearily round, I recognised the faded furniture of my own room, but a bright fire was burning in the grate and the place looked quite comfortable and tidy. The air was full of a faint music like the chime of church bells, and beyond the frosted window, large flakes of snow were falling.
What had happened? How had I come there? I tried to think, but remembered little or nothing.
All at once my attention was attracted by a movement near the fireplace, and looking that way, I saw to my amazement a man of about sixty years of age, long-haired, long-bearded, seated in an arm-chair, spectacles on nose, reading. What amazed me still more was that he held in his hand a book that looked like manuscript, which he was attentively perusing. Now he frowned, again he smiled, very grimly, but suddenly he looked up and his eyes met mine.
“Hullo!” he said, nodding.
“Hullo!” I repeated faintly, while the room seemed to swim around me.
When I looked up again the strange man was standing by the bedside, and blinking down at me through his spectacles.
“Better now?” he asked, placing his hand on my forehead with another grim smile. His voice was gruff and deep, but not unkindly.
I tried to answer him, but again the room swam round me. The next thing I remember is that the strange man was supporting me and moistening my lips with a little weak spirits and water. Then placing me gently back on the pillow, he went away, and returned with a cup of something warm.
“Drink this!” he said, supporting me as before. “No nonsense! You’ve got to drink it, and when that’s done you’ll have some more.”
It was a soup of some sort, and I drank it eagerly, for I felt very faint. All the time I was wondering what was the matter, and who my extraordinary visitor could be.
“Are you a doctor?” I asked, presently.
The strange man grinned and nodded.
“Yes! Doctor Christmas! Come to make you well; to feed you up with soup and chicken broth. Capital medicine, eh?”
“Have I been ill?” was my next question.
“Rather, but you’ll soon be all right now, won’t you?”
“I hear bells ringing.”
“Of course you do. It’s Christmas Day. Now lie down and have another sleep!”
I suppose I did as he commanded. On re-awakening I became aware of him again. He had gone back to his arm- chair, and was again reading the manuscript. Wonder of wonders! It looked like my manuscript! This time he seemed quite angry and excited, and I heard him muttering to himself.
But now there came the sound of a rustling dress, and I saw, still to my wonder, my little neighbour standing in the room dressed quite quietly in a dark stuff gown, with a white collar and wrist-bands. I thought she never looked so pretty.
“How is he now?” she was saying very softly.
“Coming round all right,” answered the strange man, just glancing up from the manuscript, then, after a moment, he put down the manuscript, and uttered what I must admit was an imprecation.
“Hush! What’s the matter?” cried my friend.
The reply seemed irrelevant.
“Isaacson’s a —— ass! Didn’t you tell me the youngster had sent him this to read?”
“Of course, I did. Hush, Joe, he’s listening.”
I was listening, in increased amazement. Who was the surly stranger whom my neighbour addressed so familiarly as “Joe?” If he was a doctor, what was he doing with my manuscript, and why did he seem so angry?
But now Fanny was bending over me, and her little soft hand was placed gently on my brow. As I looked up at her and tried to answer her kindly smile, my eyes filled with tears, and I turned my face on the pillow, sobbing like a child.
A day or so later, the mystery was explained. On the night before Christmas Eve Fanny had found me lying insensible on the landing outside her room. She had company that evening—two girl friends from the theatre, with their husbands, small actors; and with their assistance she had carried me to bed while a doctor was sent for. The secret of my condition was soon discovered; I was practically starving, and my privations had brought on a feverish attack which needed careful watching.
“Poor fellow!” said Fanny, after she had explained everything. “Why didn’t you tell me you were so hard up?”
As she spoke my old shame came over me, and I turned away to avoid her eyes.
“Never mind,” she cried presently. “Father Christmas will look after you, and I’m going to be your Good Fairy!”
“Who is Father Christmas?” I inquired. “The doctor?”
“Yes, and a stunning doctor too, as you’ll soon find out!”
“Why do you call him Joe?”
“Because he is Joe, you silly boy! Joe Phillips that I told you about, who writes for the papers.”
Phillips the critic! Phillips the Rhadamanthus of the Press! It seemed too improbable, too impossible! The great man had been there, in my room, and had actually looked after me, and warmed my soup while Fanny was away at the theatre! Then he had vanished, and so far as I knew had not returned.
“But what was he doing with my manuscript?” I cried presently.
“Why, silly, I gave it him to read!”
My poor heart sank within me, for I knew the severity of the great man’s judgments, and remembered how angry he had looked, from time to time, during the perusal.
“Oh! why did you do that?” I moaned feebly, “I didn’t want anyone to read it; I—I—”
Again she bent over me and smoothed the hair off my forehead.
“Never mind,” she whispered softly, “Joe says that Isaacson is a fool, and that you’ve written a masterpiece, and that it has got to be produced, and that if Isaacson doesn’t do it, someone else will!”
Then she leant down and kissed my brow, and I felt—or was I still dreaming?—a tear falling on my cheek.
So you see I had been right, after all, to believe in Fairyland! My Good Fairy had waved her wand, and all the world was changed to me. A week after that I was sitting up in my room, happier than I had been for many a year, and before me, resplendent in fashionable clothes and jewellery, sat Isaacson the manager, actually discussing the terms on which he should produce my comedy!
I fancy I should have made a very bad bargain, for the manager, with Hebraic keenness, took in the situation at a glance, and had just offered to buy the piece outright for fifty pounds (remember, reader, that the palmy days of authorship had not yet arrived), when Father Christmas interposed again and my Good Fairy backed him up.
“Don’t take it!” said the critic, gruffly. “I can get you very different terms at the Haymarket.”
“I should think so!” cried Fanny.
The manager scowled at the critic, but his eyes rested more tenderly, I thought, on Fanny, as he returned evasively:
“Of course, if the piece is as good as you say—and I don’t doubt it—”
“You’d better not,” cried Phillips. “Come, I’ll tell you what we’ll accept. A hundred down, and two guineas a night; same terms in the provinces.”
The manager gasped, while I myself almost fainted at the speaker’s audacity.
“But I don’t give more than that to Tom Taylor!”
“Tom Taylor be hanged! I tell you this is the very piece you have been looking for, and if you don’t want to have it—”
“Tellee what I’ll do,” cried Isaacson, “I’ll give the terms on one condition—that Miss Costello accepts the two years’ engagement I offered her, on the terms I named.”
I looked again eagerly at my Fairy, who frowned and turned her face away; then her eyes met mine, fixed appealingly on hers, and she gave a little laugh.
“That’s what I’ll do. You can talk it over and let me know what you decide.”
He evidently meant what he said, and moved towards the door. Phillips looked annoyed, and I gathered at once that he had been bluffing on my account. All at once Fanny exclaimed:
“All right; I’m agreeable.”
Whereupon Isaacson withdrew in the best of spirits, after arranging to send me a cheque and copy of agreement without delay.
Well, my tale is almost ended. My play was produced, and from that time forward I was a more or less successful author. Fanny played in the piece, and played very well indeed, all things considered; but by this time she had grown a big public favourite, certain to attract in any part she undertook.
A few years later, she—but that, as the phrase goes, is another story. I was well to do, and doing better every day, and she, a famous actress, was driving about in her own brougham. Our friendship continued, for I never ceased to bless the kind friend who had first led me on to Fortune.
I am sorry to disappoint the reader who may have fancied all along that our little friendship was to end in matrimony. No; pretty as Fanny was, and winsome and charming, she never expected me to make love to her. Once indeed, when I was almost on the verge of asking her to marry me, she looked quite pained and I saw her eyes grow dim.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” she said. “You mustn’t think of me like that, but only as your Good Fairy!”
And that is one among many reasons why, when silly people talk nonsense about the wickedness of the stage, and say unkind things of the people in Fairyland, I always get very angry; for the face of Fanny rises up before me, and I remember what my Good Fairy did for me in the early sixties.
Back to Fiction: Short Stories
A Dream; and a Deduction
The Zoophilist XIX, No. 2 (1 June, 1899 - pp. 30-31).
[Written for the ZOOPHILIST.]
A DREAM; AND A DEDUCTION.
By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
I HAD been reading, with no little horror and amazement, the accounts published in a Viennese medical journal of certain experiments in vivisection practised in the public hospitals on Human Beings. In using the word “amazement,” however, in this connection, let me explain that I was less surprised and stupefied at the facts themselves, than startled at the kind of reasoning by which the experimenters, speaking in the name of Science and advanced Thought, justified them. Human Vivisection was bound to come; it was the natural consequence of vivisection of the so-called lower animals; and the Scientist who could torture (say) a monkey or a dog, for the sake of some speculative benefit to creatures of his own species, would just as cheerfully and jauntily torture creatures of his own species, if he could convince himself that a certain percentage of other Scientists might possibly be instructed by the experiment. The chief argument by which cruel and terrible experiments were justified was nevertheless, as I have said, startling; for it was simply this—that the lower types of Creation had no rights whatever in comparison with the rights of the higher types, whence it followed that Man, being the highest type at present conceivable, was perfectly free to follow any system of inquiry, however apparently reckless and cruel, which was likely to result in his own increased physical comfort and security. Overwhelmed by the force of this adamantine logic, yet at the same time secretly revolting against its conclusions, I fell asleep, and in the manner of many another sleeper, from John Bunyan downward, I dreamed a Dream . . .
I was still, I imagined, upon the solid Earth, but my eyes being eventually opened, I saw passing to and fro around me, filling the air, and winging to and from other planets, countless Presences in whom I recognised disembodied Spirits with a shadowy resemblance to human beings. Unseen by mortal eyes, they haunted the terrestrial scenes and contemplated the happiness, terror, horror, and tribulation of Humanity. Wherever there was a sick-bed or a death-bed, they were present. Wherever a man or woman agonised, they were watching. Wherever a child sobbed in pain or a beast growled in anguish, they bent their ears to listen. They were, I thought, beautiful Beings, grave, calm, graceful, dignified—as immeasurably superior in insight and in reasoning power to men and women of flesh and blood, as men and women are superior to beasts of the forest and the field. Yet one thing in them amazed and terrified me—they did not seem in the least degree troubled or shocked by any of the sufferings they beheld. They contemplated such sufferings blandly, thoughtfully, even at times with a wise and self-pleased smile.
While I stood lost in fearful wonder, I was approached (so I dreamed) by one of these superior Beings, a bright and shining Presence with grave eyes and a noble mien. He had the shape and form of a man, yet I knew that he was fashioned of spiritual elements only. As I gazed upon him, he looked at me thoughtfully, and when I spoke to him he answered me.
“Then the Priests were right,” I murmured, “and there are higher intelligences than our own, though evolved no doubt from ours! I behold them now, those who live beyond Death!”
“There is no Death,” replied the Beyond-Man (if I may so term him), “only endless Pain and Change.”
“And you who shall inherit the earth, creatures made by an Almighty God, haunt the scenes of our mortal life, contemplating the sorrows and sufferings of our lower Humanity?”
“Even so,” was the reply. “The Earth is our school of Knowledge, and will continue to be so, until our education is complete; then, like our superiors up yonder, we may pass on to other far-off scenes, until we attain to the highest life of all, in what one of your own prophets called Nirwana. Meantime, as the brutes are to you, so are you to us!”
“And now that you have shaken off the gross fetters of Earth,” I said, “what think you of human beings?”
“They still interest us,” answered the Beyond-Man. “We realize now that they are links in the great chain of Creation, although they are so unspeakably inferior to us in the order of Nature.”
“They suffer much and terribly,” I said. “All over the Earth, even now, there rises one great cry of agony, from men and women and from countless lesser creatures. Does God hear that cry? Does He feel no pity?”
“Of God I can tell you nothing,” replied the Presence smiling. “He is, I conceive, a phantasy, an adumbration of intelligences lower than ours. To us, there is only the Law, by which things are. The nearer we approach Nirwana, the less we are conscious of any personal power or limitation.”
“I think I understand. Even here among men, there are many now who laugh at the conception of a loving and merciful God. But you, who are so much higher than myself, do you, and such as you, not compassionate the miseries of the world?”
“Compassion,” he answered, “is for the weak and miserable; we have long outgrown it. We perceive now clearly that pain is a necessary part of the eternal scheme of education. It is greatly through our agency, moreover, that the sufferings of the lower types are multiplied.”
“Why?” I cried.
“That we may observe and know. Every disease, every agony, every lingering death, is an object lesson to the Wise. Even as the human vivisector sacrifices the inferior creatures, animal and human, to his glorious thirst for Knowledge, so do we increase the tortures 31 of Humanity as the means of our enlightenment and progression.”
“Have human creatures, then, no rights?” I demanded.
“None, save in proportion to their power of solving, as we are doing, the great secrets of Existence. The majority of men cannot reason; they can only feel. Yet their sufferings, especially when prolonged for purposes of intellectual observation, are interesting in the extreme They enable us, moreover, to avoid the diseases to which all creatures are liable, and indirectly to cure them.”
“Are you, then, subject to disease and pain?”
“In a less degree than men, thanks to the knowledge we have gained and are constantly gaining. Our elements, though different from flesh and blood, inherit certain of its limitations. In other words, we are not yet perfect.”
I listened, and gazed at him in wonder. Then I said:
“Then all the great Teachers and Prophets have lied? There was one called Buddha, there was another and a greater called Christ, who was styled the Son of God;—both of these pitied and loved men infinitely, avowed that the least of living creatures had rights equal even to the highest, and promised that an all-pitiful Father would bless them and dry their tears.”
The Presence smiled again.
“The man called Buddha guessed something of our secret, but perished, being over-foolish and over-pitiful. The man called Christ wasted the World’s tears for hundreds upon hundreds of centuries, in a mad revolt against Nature and the Law.”
So saying, he vanished, and thereupon I awoke.
It was only a Dream, and doubtless a foolish one, but it read me my lesson, and when with trembling hands I again took up the record of human Devilry, done in the name of Science, I realized that if I accepted the right of any creature, under any circumstances whatever, to base its happiness or its security on pain wilfully inflicted on lower creatures, I must also accept the fiat that all the great Teachers of Mankind have spoken in vain, and that there is no God, nor even the shadow of a God. That which has hitherto been deemed most god-like in Humanity, that which has brought comfort and hope and moral salvation to countless human beings, is the one thing which the arch-priests of a false Science seek to eliminate for ever from the human conscience,—the sentiment of Pity, which is only another name for the idea of JUSTICE. If animals have no rights, then men and women have no rights; if men and women have no rights, then the conception of a Divine Providence, of a Law which works invariably for righteousness, is no more than a drunkard’s dream. The more highly organized creature is justified, even more than justified, in inflicting what agony he chooses, for selfish purposes, on the creatures who are less highly organized. Man may freely torture the brute and even his brother biped; higher intelligences (if they exist) have equally carte blanche to torture the lower intelligence, Man. Pity, Mercy, Justice, and Love vanish from the scheme of Nature altogether, and Christ Himself, the fairest human example of god- like sympathy and compassion, is left strapped like a dog upon the Vivisector’s table, to be studied in his lingering death- agony by the smiling priests of Science . . .
But is it so? Is it not true, on the contrary, that it is Pity, not Selfishness, that must redeem and save the world, and that everything which Man has hitherto gained, in his weary progress upward, is due to the evolution of an ever-growing tenderness and reverence for the lowest as well as the highest of things created?
[Note: The British Medical Journal objected to Buchanan’s ‘story’, Buchanan responded with a letter to The Star (which was reprinted in The Zoophilist), which brought a further response from The British Medical Journal. These three items are in the Letters to the Press section.]
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A Queer Theatrical Engagement
M.A.P. (17 June, 1899).
This version: The West Australian (Perth) (30 September, 1899 - p.9).
A QUEER THEATRICAL ENGAGEMENT.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
To be stranded in a strange city with only a few shillings in one’s pocket is certainly an unenviable predicament; yet it is one that a strong man may face not nncheerily, provided he is not handicapped by the burthen of one weaker and more sensitive than himself. In the case of Thomas Rollingstone, however, affairs were unusually desperate. He had arrived in New York accompanied by a young wife, a delicate Southern girl, whom he had recently married, with characteristic precipitation, in Florida, and he was on his way home to Europe, when she was seized by the mysterious complaint which Americans call “malaria,” and which frequently resembles in some of its phases the early stages of pulmonary consumption.
A physician was called in, and though he pronounced on the case favourably, he intimated that the patient must be carefully nursed within doors for some time. So there was nothing for it but to abide in patience in the Empire City, until such time as the danger had passed away.
To remain was, of course, as easy as it was inevitable, but to remain in peace and comfort, and to pay one’s way, was another matter. Rollingstone had had in his possession only just enough to provide the passage money to England, with a few dollars over for out-of-pocket expences. This sum had been soon exhausted, and the poor fellow, at the end of some weeks, was at his wits’ end, with the services of the doctor and the professional nurse still to be paid for, in addition to the cost of board and lodging, and those little luxuries which invalids need.
He had written for a remittance to his friends in England; he had wired to them also in sheer desperation. No answer whatever had as yet been received.
At the time of which I am writing, Rollingstone was just thirty years of age. The only son of a wealthy clergyman in Suffolk, he had distinguished himself at Oxford, and had held a blameless record until the time came when he was ready for ordination to his father’s profession. Then, to the horror and amazement of his family, he had avowed his intention of abandoning the church for the stage, of becoming an actor.
Remonstrances were useless. Seized with the fever of the footlights, and disdainful of the honour of holy orders, he joined a company of strolling players, becoming by profession, as the phrase goes, “a rogue and a vagabond!” From that moment he was an exile from his father’s house, and as years went on the estrangement grew greater.
His subsequent adventures as an actor need not detain us long. Clever, buoyant, light-hearted, with a handsome appearance and no little talent, he worked for sometime in the provinces, and then procured an engagement in a London company. Ill-luck, however, pursued him. The manager who had given him his metropolitan opportunity became bankrupt, and the theatre, after a few months, was closed. No other engagement offering, Tom determined to shake the buskin off his feet for ever, and to try his fortune in the Far West.
For several years he had been adrift in America, turning his hand to any work that presented itself. He had driven a coach in the Sierras, been conductor of a tram-car in ’Frisco, edited a newspaper in Denver, and acted as clerk on an orange plantation in Florida. Finally, to crown his misfortunes, or, perhaps, I should say his follies, he had married, and he was now returning to tempt fortune again, with a delicate wife on his hands, in the mother country.
Throughout all his vicissitudes, Tom had never lost courage. The calamity of his wife’s illness, however, was hard to bear, and as day after day passed, and no good news came from England, he began almost to despair.
It wanted only a fortnight to Christmas—the snow was thick on the ground and housetops, and the thermometer was several degrees below zero—when Rollingstone returned from a stroll through the city and entered the warm room where his wife was sitting propped up in an arm chair and attended by her American nurse. His face was radiant, his eyes were bright, as he bent down and kissed the invalid; then, after motioning the nurse to leave the room, he said
“It’s all right now, Rosie Darling! They’re in a fix at Walrus’s for a leading man, and I’m going to offer my services!”
Poor Rosie’s face fell. She knew her husband’s buoyant temperament, and quite failed to share his sudden exaltation. However, after a little talk she began to feel more hopeful.
Fortune generally favours the industrious and virtuous apprentice. That morning, only a fortnight, as I have said, before the coming of Christmas Day, Tom had read in the papers that the beautiful young actor, Mr. Purley Pettitoes, had left Walrus’s Theatre without a moment’s warning, flying to San Francisco with the wife of the leader of the orchestra.
On alighting at the theatre, Tom Rollingstone asked for Mr. Walrus, and sent in his card. A message came out that the great man was too busy to see him. Tom persisted, and sent in word that his business was urgent. No use; Mr. Walrus could not receive him. Used to rebuffs of this sort in the old days, Tom waited in the lobby of the theatre, and presently his patience was rewarded.
Two gentlemen came out in excited conversation, one handsome man with a moustache, whom he at once recognised as the manager of the theatre, the other a corpulent gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion.
“It is ruinous,” the latter was saying. “You must play the part yourself.”
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” answered the manager in his best, high comedy manner, “I shall close the theatre!”
The fat man was mopping his brow with a coloured handkerchief and muttering wild execrations when Tom stepped forward and accosted the manager.
“Mr. Walrus, I believe?”
“Eh? ah, hum!” said Mr. Walrus, adjusting his eyeglass and looking the stranger from head to foot.
“My name is Rollingstone!”
“Eh? ah, hum. Sir, I don’t know you!”
“But my name was once pretty well known over on the other side. I heard you were in a dilemma, and I came to offer my services.”
“Eh, hum,” said the great man, as if astonished at such audacity. “To act, ha, in my theatre, sir?”
“Certainly. Mr. Pettitoes has, I believed, seceded.”
“Mr. Pettitoes, sir,” said the manager loftily, “is a fool. But his loss can’t be repaired. He was a popular favourite.”
“Ah, he was beautiful,” groaned the fat man. “The women lofed him; he did dress so charming, and we paid him four hundred dollars a week!”
“Give me two hundred,” said Tom, “and I will take his place. I know Pettitoes. In England we always thought him a duffer. Why, five years ago he was a counterjumper, if you know what that is, in Peter Robinson’s shop.”
Mr Walrus adjusted his eyeglass again and positively gasped with amazement.
“Impossible, sir; impossible!” he said.
“I am an actor of experience,” persisted Tom.
“We don’t want an actor of experience,” cried the fat man. “We want a lofely actor like Pettitoes! Ah, before he shaved his moustache, he was divine!”
“I don’t set up for an Adonis,” said Tom, laughing; “but they tell me that I look very well upon the stage. Here is a photograph of me as Romeo—will you look at it?”
Mr. Walrus inspected the photograph which Tom handed to him, while Abrahams peered over his shoulder. As they were thus engaged, Tom ran through a rapid and highly-coloured account of his experiences and successes as an actor. He was arrested by a loud cry. from Mr. Abrahams.
“His legs are like the legs of Pettitoes! He will do! Engage him!”
“Nonsense, Abrahams,” said the other, wavering. “He may be unable to act!”
“We don’t want an actor! We want legs like those, and of course he would grow his moustache!”
Tom laughed outright.
“At any rate give me a trial,” he said “I will come round to the theatre in the morning and show you what I can do.”
So it was at last decided. Tom’s handsome face and figure had so far won the day.
He hastened home to his wife with the good news and fairly swept her away with his high-spirited enthusiasm.
“You didn’t tell them about—about me?” she whispered, blushing.
“Not such a fool,” cried Tom, while poor Rosie pouted. “Time enough for that when I’ve pocketed the dollars! Besides my darling, it’s no business of theirs.”
Next day he hastened to the theatre by appointment and went through some bits of his favourite characters. The manager was satisfied. An engagement was signed on the spot a hundred and fifty dollars a week, for Thomas Rollingstone to open at Walrus’s Theatre on Boxing Night as the hero of a new drama written by two popular English authors, and entitled Mother and Son. There was some little trouble at first, as Miss Bellaston, a somewhat passée English actress, had to play the mother, and was disgusted with her part, but the manager talked her over.
Rehearsals went on and all looked fair and full of promise. A day or two before the production, as Tom was taking a quiet lunch at a restaurant close to the theatre, a waiter came in and gave him a card bearing this inscription:
HON. JULIUS A. BUNKER,
New York Stinger.
“Mr. Bunker wishes to see you at once,” said the waiter; “he is down at the bar.
“I don’t know the gentleman,” replied Tom. “What does he want?”
“Wishes to interview you, sir. Says if you’re busy, he’ll go home and write his interview without seeing you, but it must be published to-morrow.”
“Well, show him up!” said Tom laughing.
Mr. Bunker appeared. He was a short, thin, black-eyed man about forty, with a dingy countenance, a doubtful wardrobe, and a large diamond in his neck scarf.
“Glad to know you, Mr. Rollingstone,” he said, shaking hands. “I’ve come to get your record on behalf of the proprietors of the Stinger. I also correspond for the Boston Humming Bird, the Poughkeepsie Daily Trumpet, and the Chicago Eye-opener.
And Mr. Bunker, sitting down, pulled out a note book.
“To begin with, what is your age?” Tom told him. “Air you a married man?” Tom answered after some hesitation in the negative. Other less important questions and answers followed. Then came the following:
“Be good enough to open your mouth!”
“Mr Rollingstone, I congratulate you!” cried the journalist, seizing his hand. “You have one advantage over Pettitoes. Your teeth air your own!”
“I hope so,” said Tom, laughing and showing them.
Mr. Bunker chuckled and winked.
“Guess it was a sore day for Pettitoes when I interviewed his dentist and told the play-going public what he paid fer his two sets of grinders and molars. The business went down a thousand dollars a week, and it didn’t go up again till the Morning Cantelope published the report that Pettitoes’ first wife, a divorced countess, was coming over to institute a prosecution for bigamy!”
Tom listened in amazement. Just then the waiter appeared and informed him that a gentlemen from the New York Atlas was below, and desired to see him immediately.
Mr. Bunker rose.
“Before I go, calculate I’d like to drink your health, Mr. Rollingstone. The people here know my partikler poison. I’ll take a John Collins.”
While the waiter disappeared to execute the order, Mr. Bunker continued.
“I think I can congratulate you beforehand on a great success. I understand your record, Mr. Rollingstone. May I ask you, sir, before I retire to prepare my interview, what is your opinion of our institutions?”
Tom replied merrily that he thought them admirable, especially the institution of “interviewing.”
“Our actors, Mr. Rollingstone?”
“Admirable also, as far as I know.”
“What is your opinion of Miss Bellaston, of Walrus’s?”
“I hardly know the lady. She must be an actress of great experience, as she was on the stage before I was born.”
Luckless Tom! He little knew what he was saying. With a warm shake of the hand Mr. Bunker retired, not, however, before the John Collins had been brought in and disposed of.
A tall military-looking, but mild mannered gentleman now entered, and greeted Tom with a polite bow.
“My name is Julius Cæsar Jefferson. I represent the New York Atlas, the Brooklyn Banner, and the Chicago Daily Alarmist!”
Tom bowed, and motioned his visitor to a chair.
“Your time is valuable, Mr. Rollingstone, and I will not detain you long,” said Mr. Jefferson, suavely producing the inevitable note book. “You are the new leading man at the Walrus’s Theatre? May I ask your record?”
Tom told him in much the same words as he had told his predecessor.
“May I ask, sir, if you admire our institutions?”
Same reply. “Of course,” and so on, and so on.
“You have an arduous task before you,” pursued Mr. Jefferson; “Mr. Pettitoes was a great favourite. He owed much of his popularity to me, and was very grateful. After that little affair of the double marriage to two heiresses in Philadelphia, and the divorce suit following I wrote him up, sir, and got him his engagement at Walrus’s Theatre.”
“Very kind of you, I’m sure,” said Tom. “What a pity he has thrown away his chances, and covered himself with such disgrace.”
Mr. Jefferson opened his eyes.
“At this present moment, sir,” he said, “Pettitoes is worth at least three hundred dollars a week more than he was a month ago. I calculate there isn’t a manager in New York who wouldn’t jump to engage him on his own terms, and I may tell you in confidence that after the elopement, Abrahams (who is a smart man) wired offering to double his salary for a re-engagement.”
“I’m afraid I can’t enter into competition with such a gentleman,” returned Tom, highly amused. “I am not a bigamist, and I have not run away with anybody.”
“Your chance will come,” said the interviewer dryly. “Rome, sir, was not built in a day!”
“At least I think I am a tolerable actor.”
Mr Jefferson surveyed him critically.
“You have a good appearance. There is a kind of a Grecian grace about your eyebrows and your nostril, sir, which should fetch our women. They went mad last season about Melcampington’s bow legs, which they likened to the weapon of Cupid, and they wouldn’t listen to your great actor, Mr. Mellowtone, because, not being a smart man, he came out here with his lawful wife and family and his mother-in-law!”
After a little refreshment Mr. Jefferson also retired. It never rains but it pours. That same day Tom was besieged with interviewers of all sorts, some of them highly excited with strong liquors, and all anxious to get his “record” and his opinions of American institutions. He went through the ordeal as well as he could.
The next morning Tom was surprised to read in the New York Stinger, a full, untrue, and not at all particular account of himself, his personal appearance, and his opinions on every subject under the sun. The article was no doubt meant to be flattering, but to Tom’s English idea it seemed offensive in extreme. It begun with a minute description of his person, not forgetting his teeth, and the clothes he had been wearing, and then went on as follows:
“Mr. Rollingstone has the supercilious manners and strong prejudices characteristic of the average Britisher. He spoke with undisguised contempt of our American actors, and informed our representative that Miss Bellaston of Walrus’s was old enough to be his mother. In his own opinion he could act Walrus’s own head off in comedy.
“‘Yaas, yaas, I know,’ he said with a dudish drawl, leaning back and puffing his cigar, ‘Walrus is clever, but he wouldn’t do in the old country. Lacks elegance, and belongs to an extinct school. Yaas!’
“‘What is your opinion of Pettitoes, Mr. Rollingstone?’
“‘Pretty good, but amateurish. Would be better placed in a dry goods store than in a theatre! Yaas!’”
And so on, and so on. The article concluded in these words:
“It will be gathered from the above that Mr Rollingstone, the new leading man at Walrus’s, has an excellent opinion of himself. It is to be hoped that his appearance next Monday evening will justify such unlimited confidence in his own powers.”
More matter of this veracious kind appeared in the other papers which had sent representatives to interview the new actor. Tom was surprised to read more particularly in the Looking Glass a verbatim reproduction of his conversation on all sort of subjects, political, literary, ethical, religious, and dramatic. This feat of inventive reporting was, seeing the condition overnight of the gentleman who was responsible for it, little short of marvellous.
Angry yet amused he walked on to a rehearsal. A cold and haughty bow from Mr. Walrus, and a cat-like glare from Miss Bellaston, showed him that these distinguished persons had read The Stinger. He found conversation with the lady impossible, but he soon succeeded in convincing Mr. Walrus that the interviewer, in recording his opinions, had trusted solely to his powers of malignant invention.
Christmas day dawned, and Rollingstone and his wife were very hopeful and happy. Rosie ate a tiny piece of English plum pudding, and sipped a glass of champagne to the health of “Walrus’s new leading man!”
“Mother and Son” was produced on Boxing night before a brilliant audience, largely consisting of ladies. At first my hero’s reception was cold, for American playgoers are not demonstrative, but as he warmed to his work, the applause became more and more marked, till it ended in an ovation.
Next morning the papers were full of praise of the new piece and the new leading man, and the ticket speculators thronged the pavement before the theatre. In the course of the next twenty-four hours Tom received no less than forty-five scented letters from as many unknown ladies, the majority of them married. Some of them contained photographs and asked his in return. Several enclosed locks of hair and one a diamond breast pin, which he returned instantly. He thought it better not to show those letters to his wife.
The tide of fortune had turned at last. To crown Tom’s good luck, Rosie was growing stronger and better every day.
Several weeks ran by and business continued good. At last, however, an interruption came to Tom’s prosperity. One morning Mr. Abrahams met him at the stage door, and requested an immediate interview. They retired to the manager’s private room.
“Have you seen this morning’s Stinger?” asked the fat man excitedly. “There is an article about yon, sir—an article you will not like! It says that you are not worthy to tie the shoestrings of Pettitoes!”
“Indeed! Well I suppose it doesn’t matter?”
“It does matter very much!” exclaimed Abrahams. “There are complaints of you, Mr. Rollingstone. The public think you are proud and treat them with contempt. Ah, how different it was with Pettitoes!”
“Oh, hang Pettitoes,” said Tom, impatiently.
“But that is not the worst,” said Abrahams, impatiently, “you have deceived us! You are an impostor—yes, sir, an impostor!”
“Indeed, how so?” asked Tom somewhat surprised.
“You did not tell us you were a married man!”
“That’s my business,” said Tom.
“No, sir, it is ours!” exclaimed Abrahams. “Had we known we should never have engaged you! And your wife is here with you, in New York; the Stinger says so, you know that it is true!”
“Why should I deny it,” replied Tom, laughing in spite of himself. “Yes, I am married, to the prettiest and best little woman in the world.”
Abrahams uttered an exclamation of disgust, and rushed away to interview the manager of the theatre.
A little inquiry elicited the fact that the ladies of New York, indignant at Rollingstone’s inattention to their homage, and finding that he had a wife with whom he lived happily, had determined to boycott the new actor. The booking in advance had fallen considerably, and the play was shortly to be withdrawn. In a subsequent interview with Mr. Walrus, Tom expressed his amazement at the state of things.
“Ha, hum,” said the great man, shrugging his shoulders. “Our public, Mr. Rollingstone, is very capricious. Pettitoes was a scoundrel, and highly popular. You are a gentleman, and they don’t like you. I’m afraid you’ll never do in this country.”
“In other words,” exclaimed Tom, “I am neither a rogue nor a bigamist, a ruffian nor an adventurer. I——”
“Exactly. Only one thing could save you just at this juncture, and that would be a scandal of some sort. Abrahams proposed to invent a deserted wife for you, and to have you horsewhipped by her outside Delmonico’s; but I told him you’d never agree to the arrangement.”
“Certainly not,” replied Tom. “I am sorry, Mr. Walrus, that I am such a discredit to the traditions of your stage.”
“My dear boy,” said the manager kindly, “I deplore the public taste as much as yon can possibly do. You have come at an unfortunate time.”
“Then I suppose we shall have to say good-bye?”
“I’m afraid so; Abrahams is my capitalist, and insists on your dismissal. The fact is—ah, Pettitoes is coming back!”
So it was—the King was dead, so long live the King! Pettitoes was to come back in triumph, eager for new conquests among the fair, and Tom was to retire as soon as possible. The last nights of Mother and Son were announced, and the new and original drama from the French, in which the errant Pettitoes was to appear, was underlined in the programme. A few days after the withdrawal of the play from Walrus’s Theatre, and the termination of Tom’s fortunate engagement, Tom received a letter from home. The moment he had read it he handed it to his wife.
“More good news!” he said embracing her. “All our troubles are over, dear; the governor is ready to welcome his prodigal son and to kill the fatted calf.”
Rosie clapped her hands in delight.
“I’m the luckiest fellow in the world,” continued Tom, “and as for this Christmas engagement, I shall always remember it as the happiest event of my life. And I tell you what it is, darling, if you’re well enough, and the doctor allows it, we’ll both go to see Pettitoes in the new play, so that everybody will know what a dear little wife I’ve got, and how little I envy the good fortune of the newly arisen star!”
They did go, and enthroned in a stage box, Rosie became the cynosure of a thousand admiring eyes, while Tom, seated by her side, vigorously applauded the public favourite who had taken his place. The play was a success, Pettitoes was called and re-called, but in all the theatre there were no such happy hearts as those beating in that stage box.
A day or two later Tom Rollingstone sailed with his wife for England. He never returned again to the stage. He is now a prosperous country gentleman, and his wife a gentle matron, the mother of healthy boys and girls.
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