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In which I vainly make the rounds of the theatrical agents; almost go to sea; and at last get the chance for which I have long been yearning.
NOTHING, I believe, makes so much difference, not only with the appearance of a man, but with the man himself, as good clothes and a well-filled stomach, and this is even more true of a boy, who is more sensitive to impressions of every sort.
When I was dressed next morning in my new clothes, which already had almost ceased to feel strange to me, and had eaten a breakfast so large that Sidney's eyes widened with alarm while he watched me, I did not feel at all like the shabby boy of the day before. I did a few dance steps, in high spirits, and mimicked for Sidney's benefit a great many of the market people and the coster who had fed his donkey carrots. I even assumed a little of my old patronizing attitude toward Sidney, who had never been considered the clever one of the family, and promised him large returns for all he had done for me as soon as I should become a famous actor.
This matter of cleverness I believe now to be greatly overrated. The clever person is too apt to let his cleverness excuse the absence of most of the solid qualities of character, and to rely on facility and surface brilliance to supply the want of industry and prudence. All my life I have been going up like a rocket, all sparks and a loud noise, and coming down like one again, but Sidney has always been the steady stand-by of the family, ready to pick me out of the mud and start me up again. He is the better man of the two.
That morning, though, after I had eaten his breakfast, I could not imagine myself ever in need of help again and my mind was full of future success on the stage. I could hardly wait while he dressed to go with me to the agents, and when we were in the streets I walked with a swagger, and pointed out the sights as if he were only a provincial and I at least a capitalist of London.
I was just twelve then and the law was strict against the employment on the stage of children under fourteen, but I do not remember that I ever had any difficulty in convincing the agents that I was over the legal age. My self-confidence and my talent for mimicry were so strong that they overcame the impression of my small size, and I suppose the month of hunger and suffering for my mother had given my face an older look.
In the weeks which followed Sidney's homecoming we visited dozens of agents. I climbed the long stairs to their offices in a fever of expectation and hope; I talked to each agent quite confidently, and when he had taken my name and address and said he had nothing for me at present, I came down again in the depths of gloom, so despondent that only a good dinner and a visit to the theater would cheer me. I always felt that I could play the parts much better than any actor I saw, and so I came away in high spirits again.
Every day we went to see my mother, and the nurses said she was a little better, but she never knew us or spoke to us and we could not see any change. This sadness because she could not be happy with us made our rooms seem gloomy when we returned to them, and I know that Sidney felt it always. Often, planning what we should do when she was well again, and how proud she would be of my success when I was a great actor, I almost believed it all true and was as happy as if it were. My imagination has always seemed truer to me than facts.
Christmas came and went and I did not have an offer of a place on the stage. Sidney must go back to sea. Nearly all of his savings were gone and he felt he must leave some money to buy little delicacies for my mother. The problem of what to do with me bothered him, and when he spoke of it, as he did sometimes, all my dreams faded suddenly and I felt so desolate that if I had been smaller I would have wept in despair.
At last he arranged with his company to take me on the ship as cabin-boy. He said it would not be half bad, I might grow to like the sea, and although I hated the thought of it, it seemed better than going back to Covent Garden market again. We were to sail sometime in January, bound for Africa. As a last resort we made the rounds of the theatrical agents again, but there was nothing in sight for me, and so it was settled that I must go to sea.
Sidney bought me a little bag and packed it with the things I should need on ship-board. We gave up the lodgings and paid a last visit to mother. This time she was quieter and looked at us several times almost as if she recognized us. It nearly broke my heart to leave her so, but we could not think of anything else to do.
The morning of our last day in London my breakfast almost choked me. Our bags were packed, waiting beside our chairs, and it seemed to me that everything in the world was wrong. I knew I should not like the sea. The maid had brought in a few letters, with the bill for the lodgings, and Sidney was looking them over. Suddenly he looked at me queerly and threw a card across the table to me.
"Seems to be for you," he said. I turned it over in a hurry and read it. It said, "Call and see me, Frank Stern, 55 the Strand." Frank Stern was a theatrical agent.
I leaped from my chair with a shout of excitement.
"What price the sea now?" I cried. "I've got a place worth the whole of it! Where's my hat?"
"Go slow, go slow, lad," said Sidney. "You haven't got the place yet, you know."
"I've as good as got it" I retorted, tearing open the bags to find my comb and a clothes brush. "Come, now, Sidney, lend me your cane? An actor has to have a cane, you know."
Sidney lent me his cane, and I leaped down the stairs three steps at a time.
A tram would not do, I must have a cab to go in a style suiting my new position. All the way I gave myself the airs of a great actor, looking haughtily from the cab-window at the common Londoners and thinking how the audiences would applaud when I strode down the stage.
Frank Stern was a little man, plump and important, with a big diamond on his finger, and he began by clearing his throat in an impressive manner and looking me over very sharply, but I sat down with a careless air, swinging Sidney's cane and asked him in an offhand way if he had anything particularly good. At the moment so great was the power of my imaginings on my own mind I felt quite careless as to whether I got the place or not and was resolved not to take any small part unworthy my talents.
"It's the leading part with a provincial company From Rags to Riches," he said. "Our lead's fallen sick and we need a new one in a hurry. Think you can do it?"
"E Er provincial company," I said doubtfully. "I had not thought of leaving London. Still what's the screw?"
"One pound ten a week," he answered. "Impossible!" I said. "I could not think of it."
"Well we might make it two pounds. We need some one in a hurry. If you are a quick study and make a good showing at rehearsal say two pounds. Yes, I'll make it two pounds."
"It's a small salary a very small salary," I said gruffly. I, who had been glad to steal a donkey's carrots only a few weeks earlier! But I did not think of that. I thought of my great talents, wasted in a provincial company. "I'll think it over," I told the agent, seeing he would not increase the amount.
"No. I must know right now," he replied firmly.
I wrinkled my brows with an air of indecision and thought for a minute.
"All right, I'll do it," I said.
"Rehearsal to-morrow at ten," Frank Stern said, giving me the address in a quite commonplace manner.