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In which I make my first public appearance on the stage and my first success; and meet the red-faced man.
I WALKED uncertainly out on the stage. The glare of the lights dazzled me so I stumbled. The stage seemed a great empty place, and I felt little and alone. I did not know just what to do, but my father had told me to go out and sing Jack Jones, and I did not dare go back until I had done it.
There was a great uproar beyond the footlights, and it confused me more, until I saw that the people were laughing and applauding. Then I remembered my singing on the table, with people all around and noise and light, and I saw that this was the same thing. I opened my mouth and sang Jack Jones with all my might.
It was an old coster song my father had taught me. I sang one verse and started on the second, hurrying to get through. I was not afraid of the crowd, but the stage got bigger and I got littler every minute, and I wanted to be with my mother.
There was a great noise which interrupted my song, and something hit me on the cheek. I stopped singing with my mouth open on a note, and something else hit the floor by my feet, and then a shower of things fell on the stage and one struck my arm. The audience was throwing them at me.
I backed away a little, terrified, but I went on singing as well as I could, with my face quivering and a big lump in my throat. I knew I had to finish the song because my father had told me to. Great tears came up in my eyes, and I ducked my head and rubbed at them with my knuckles, and then I saw the floor of the stage. It was almost covered with pennies and shillings. Money! It was money they were throwing at me!
"Oh! Wait, wait!" I shouted, and went down on my hands and knees to gather it up. "It's money! Wait just a minute!"
I got both hands full of it, and still there was more. I crawled around, picking it up and putting it in my pockets and shouted at the audience, "Wait till I get it all and I'll sing a lot!"
It was a great hit. People laughed and shouted and climbed on their seats to throw more money. It kept falling around me, rolling across the stage, while I ran after it, shouting with joy. I filled all my pockets and put some in my hat. Then I stood up and sang Jack Jones twice, and would have sung it again, but my father came out on the stage and led me off.
I had almost three pounds in six-penny pieces, shillings, and even a few half-crowns. I sat on a box and played with it while my father did his act. I could not count it, but I knew it was money, and I felt rich. Then we went home, where my father set me upon the bed beside my mother, and I poured the money over her, laughing. She laughed, too, and my father took the money and bought us all a great feast, and let me drink some of the ale. I remember how I crowed over Sidney that night.
My mother was able to go back to work next day, and Sidney and I were left in the rooms again. There was a quarrel before she went; my father swore, and mother cried and stamped her foot. She said, "No! No I No! He's too little yet." And I knew they were talking about me, and crawled away into a corner, where I kept very still.
After that I think we grew poorer and poorer. There were no more parties at night. My mother would come in alone, and when she waked me, tucking me in, I felt so sad it seemed as if my heart would break, because her face did not sparkle any more. Sidney and I played about in the daytime, and kept out of father's way. When he came in his face was red, and his breath was hot and strong with whisky. He used to throw himself on the bed without a word to mother and fall asleep with his mouth open. Then Sidney and I went quietly out and played on the stairs. Sidney was a wide-awake lively young person, always running about and shouting "Ship ahoy!" He wanted to be a sailor. I could not play with him long because it tired me. I liked to get into a corner by myself and think and dream of things I had seen and what I would do some day — vague dreams of making music and wearing velvet suits and bowing to immense audiences and having cream tarts for every meal and six white ponies to drive.
The worry and the unhappiness which seemed to grow like a cloud around us in those years made me sit sometimes and cry quietly to myself, not knowing why, but feeling miserable and sad. Then my great dreams faded and I felt little and lonely, and not even my mother could comfort me.
So I came to be about ten years old, and all my memories of the years between my first appearance on the stage and the day I met the red-faced man are vague recollections of these dreams and hurried trips from place to place, and the unhappiness, and my mother's face growing sadder. Then I remember clearly the night I went with her to the music-hall in London and ran away with the clog dancers.
My mother took me with her because when it was time for her to go to work she could not find Sidney. He was almost fourteen and played a great deal in the streets, and used to go away for the whole day sometimes, which worried my mother. But she had to work and could not be with us or keep us together. It is my impression that my father was making very little money then, and spending all he got in bars, as he was a very popular man and had many friends who wanted him to drink with them. I know that we were living in very poor lodgings, and my mother cried sometimes when the landlady asked her for the rent.
I remember on this day standing beside my mother and watching a troupe of clog dancers who were working on the stage. Mother was wearing her stage dress, waiting to go on for her act, and she kept asking me where I had seen Sidney last, but I could hardly listen. I knew how to clog dance, for Sidney and I had done it with the boys in the streets, and I was impatient because my mother had her hand on my shoulder, and I wanted to do the steps with the others. I squirmed away from her and began dancing by myself. I did all the difficult steps very proudly, and when the music stopped I saw that my mother looked proud, too. I looked around to see if any one else was admiring me, and saw the red-faced man.
He was standing behind my mother, a fat man, with a double chin, and a wart on one of his lower eyelids. It fascinated me so I could not take my eyes from it. When my mother went on for her act I still stood staring at it.
"I say, you're lively on your feet, young feller," he said to me. "Could you do that every day, say?"
"Oh, yes, I like to do it," I said.
"Would you like to come along, now, with a nice troupe of fine little boys and do it for a fortnight or so?" he asked.
"What's the screw?" I said, looking shrewd, as I had seen my father do. He laughed.
"Three six a week," he said, "all for your own pocket money. And I'll buy you a velvet suit, and you can eat hearty — meat pies and pudding every meal."
"And cream tarts?" I stipulated.
"Up to your eyes in cream tarts if you like," be said. "Come now, will you do it?"
"Yes," I answered promptly.
"All right, come along," he said, and led me out of the music hall.