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In which I encounter the difficulties of a make-up bog; make my first appearance in drama; and learn the emptiness of success with no one to share it.
THE rest of the company were very glum on that journey to Sweetbay, sitting hunched up any way in their seats and looking drearily from the windows, not even glancing at me as I strode up, and down the compartment, murmuring the words of my part to myself and hoping Mr. Baxter was noticing how studious I was.
"Well enough for you, old man," I said to myself, seeing him absorbed in a copy of Floats, and not even looking in my direction. "Wait till you see me act!" But I felt my spirits somewhat dampened by his indifference, nevertheless.
When the train stopped at Sweetbay I stepped to the platform with a lively air and stood looking around while the others dragged down the steps. It was raining a little, very few people were about and they were not at all interested in us, which seemed to me a personal affront.
"Hustle, now! No time to look for lodgings till after matinee!" Mr. Baxter said briefly, and set off at a brisk pace, the rest of us straggling behind him through the streets.
I walked as jauntily as possible, swinging my cane with an air, but the gloom of it all depressed me. I wished myself older than twelve years, and larger, so that I would not have to look up at the others, and I wondered if I could do the make-up right, but determined not to ask any one how it was done. I had bought a make-up box and experimented a bit before my mirror, but I was doubtful of the effect on the stage.
When we reached the Theater Royal, a dark smelly place, with littered, dirty dressing-rooms, I felt quite helpless before the problem. It appeared that all the men were to share one dressing-room, and I crowded into the tiny place with the others and opened my make-up box, ashamed of its new look. The comedian and Lord Plympton, who behind the scenes was a sallow gloomy individual with a breath smelling of beer and onions, sat down at once in their shirt-sleeves before the small cracked mirrors and began smearing their faces with grease-paint, for we were late, and already the lights had gone on in front and a few people were shuffling in.
I made shift with the make-up as best I might and hurried into the ragged suit I was to wear in the first scene, pinning it up in small folds about me, for it was the costume worn by the former lead and too large for me. However, I hoped to make it do, and when, by the glimpses I could get of myself in the mirror, it seemed to be all right, I left the dressing-room and wandered into the wings, feeling well satisfied with myself.
The stage was shadowy and dark behind the big canvas scenes. "A street in a London slums" was already set, and the scene shifters, swearing in hoarse whispers, were wheeling Lord Plympton's drawing-room into position for a quick change. I made my way warily around this and encountered Mr. Baxter, who was rushing about in a frenzy, roundly cursing everything in sight. When he saw me he stopped short.
"Good Gord!" he cried. "Going on like this?"
"What's wrong?" I asked, startled.
"Wrong? Wrong? Why was I ever a manager?" moaned Mr. Baxter, seizing his head in both hands. "You gory idiot!" he exploded, and seemed to choke.
"What's the row, Joe?" the woman who was to play my mother asked, coming over to us, while I stood very uneasy and doubtful what to say.
"Look at 'im!" roared Mr. Baxter. "How many times have I told him he's pathetic — PATHETIC! And here he comes with a face like a bloomin' cranberry! And he goes on in six minutes!"
"I'll look out for the lad," the woman said, kindly enough, and taking me by the hand she led me into the women's dressing-room, where she made up my face with her own paint and powder and I squirmed with humiliation.
"It's your first shop, aren't it?" she said, drawing the dark circles under my eyes, and I drew myself up with as much dignity as possible in the circumstances and said stiffly, "This is my first engagement with a provincial company."
Then I returned to the wings and waited with beating heart for my cue. Mr. Baxter, made up as the villain now, stood beside me giving me last orders, but my head whirled so I could hardly hear him, and all the lights made a dazzling glare in my eyes. Then my cue came — my mother, on the stage, moaned piteously, and Mr. Baxter gave me a little push. I stumbled out on the stage, crying, "See, mother dear, here is a crust!"
The blinding glare in my eyes and the confusion in my brain were over in a minute. The strangeness of it all fell away from me, and, in a manner I can not explain to one who is not an actor, I was at the same time the ragged, hungry child, starving in Covent Garden market, and the self-conscious actor playing a part. I wept sincerely for the suffering of my poor mother, who moaned at my feet, and at the same time I said to myself, proudly, "What, ho! now they see how pathetic I am, what?" When I did not remember the words I made them up, paying no heed to the villain's anxious prompting behind his hand, and I defied him vigorously at the close of the act, crying, "You shall touch my mother only over my dead body!" with enthusiasm. The curtain fell and there was a burst of applause behind it.
"Not half bad, what?" I said triumphantly, to Mr. Baxter, while my stage mother scrambled to her feet, and he replied moodily, "Don't be so cocky, young 'un. There's three acts yet to go."
But I was warmed up to the work now and I enjoyed it, wandering forlorn through my imitation griefs and at last coming grandly into my rights as the earl's son and wearing the splendor of the velvet suit with great aplomb in the last act, although I was obliged surreptitiously to hold up the trousers with one hand because I could not find enough pins in the dressing-room to make them fit me. I felt that I was the hit of the piece and rushed out of the theater afterward to find lodgings and eat a chop before the evening performance with all the emotions of an actor who had arrived at the pinnacle of fame. I could not forbear telling the waiter who served me the chop, a grimy little eating house not far from the theater, that I was the leading man of the From Rags to Riches company and must be served quickly, as pressing duties awaited me at the theater before the evening performance. He looked down at me with a broad grin on his fat face and said, "You don't say, now!" in a highly gratifying tone, although I wished he had said it more solemnly.
That night, sitting alone in my bed-sitting-room in actors' lodgings, I was greatly pleased with myself and wished only that my mother were there to see me. I wrote her a long letter, telling her how well I had done and promised to send her at least ten shillings, and perhaps a pound, when I was paid on Saturday. Then I went out into the dark silent streets where the rain fell mournfully to post it. The night was very gloomy. After all, I was only twelve and had no friends anywhere except Sidney, who had gone to Africa. I thought of my mother lying alone in the hospital and perhaps not able to understand my glad news when it should arrive, and such a feeling of sadness and loneliness came over me that I hurried back to my room and crawled into bed without lighting the gas, very unhappy, indeed.