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In which I play with a celebrated actor; dare to look at the royal box; pay a penalty for my awful crime; gain favor with the public; and receive a summons from another famous star.
MY nerves were stretched tight, like badly tuned violin strings, and I seemed to feel them vibrate when I stepped on the stage and spoke my opening line, with Gillette's eyes upon me and the packed house listening. My brain was keyed to a high pitch, working smoothly, but it did not seem in any way attached to my body, and I heard the words as though some one else had spoken them. They were clear, firm, the accent perfect. I felt myself stepping three steps forward, one to the right, and turning to Mr. Gillette; heard my second line spoken, with the emphasis placed properly on the third word.
"Don't look at the royal box," I said to myself.
Then I was in the swing of the scene. Mr. Gillette spoke; I answered him; the situation came clearly into my mind. I realized that I was playing opposite William Gillette, that the eyes of London were on me, and royalty itself listening. I threw myself into the work, quivering with the strain of it, but determined to play up to the big moment. I was doing well. I knew it. I saw it in the relaxation of Mr. Gillette's anxious watching. He was abandoning himself to his part, trusting me to play up to him.
"Now, Billy, listen to me carefully," he said. I turned my head to the right angle, felt the muscles of my face quiver with the exact expression that should be there.
"Yes, sir," I replied, with the exact tone of eagerness I had practised so often. Gillette took up his lines. The scene was going well. — The house hung breathless on every word. —
"Don't look at the royal box," I repeated to myself, feeling an almost irresistible longing to turn my head in that direction, and stiffening my neck against it.
I did not know who was in the box and would have been no wiser if I had looked, for I had never seen the royal family, but I learned later. The late King Edward himself was present, with Queen Alexandria, the King of Greece, Prince Christian and the Duke of Connaught. Prince Christian, who was a personal friend of William Gillette, came often to see him act, but this was an unusually brilliant party.
I stood tense, waiting for my cue. It came at last.
"Billy, I want you to watch the thieves," said Sherlock Holmes.
It was a thrilling moment in the play. I must be silent just long enough — not too long — before I spoke. I heard my heart beat in the pause; the audience waited, tense. The house was silent.
Then, in the stillness, we heard a murmur from Prince Christian, and an impatient stage whisper in reply from the King of Greece.
"Don't tell me — don't tell me; I want to see it," he said. "Jove, watch that youngster!"
The tension of my nerves broke. William Gillette, in an effort to save the dramatic moment of the scene, repeated, "Billy, I want you to watch the thieves." And, while the house gazed at me, I turned my head and looked full at the royal box.
The audience was stunned. It sat dumb, in frozen horror. There was an awful silence, while I stood helpless, gazing at the King of Greece, and he stared back at me with slowly widening eyes. Then his face broke into little lines; they ran down from his eyes to his mouth; it widened into a smile. A sudden chuckle from King Edward broke the terrible stillness. Again we heard the voice of the King of Greece:
"By Jove! Ha! Ha!"
I tore my eyes away and continued the scene through a haze. We finished it before a silent house. The curtain fell. Then, led by the royal box, a storm of applause arose. We took our curtain call — I was on the stage of a great West End theater, bowing before applauding crowds, in the company of one of the greatest actors in London. The voice of royalty itself had been heard speaking of my acting. I was dizzy with exultation.
The curtain fell for the last time and I strutted proudly from the stage, looking from one to another of the company, eager to meet their envious looks. They hurried to their dressing-rooms without a glance at me. No one spoke. There was a strained chill feeling in the atmosphere. I passed Mr. Postham and he hurried by me as if I were not there.
A feeling of trouble and loneliness grew upon me while I touched up my make-up for the second scene, though I told myself as confidently as possible that my looking at the royal box could not have been so bad, since the King of Greece had smiled and Mr. Postham had said nothing. Yet I would have been more at ease if he had sworn at me.
I threw myself into the work of the remaining scenes with all the skill I had learned, and I felt that I was doing them well, but the cold feeling of uncertainty and doubt grew upon me. At last the final curtain fell. Then for the first time that evening the eyes of the whole company turned on me. They lingered on the stage, waiting. Mr. Postham walked slowly out and looked at me quietly.
"Well, it went well, didn't it?" I said cockily to him, saying savagely to myself that I had been the hit of the evening. My words fell on a dead silence, while Mr. Postham continued to look at me, and little by little I felt myself growing very small and would have liked to go away, but could not.
"I suppose you realize what you did," Mr. Postham said, after a long time, and paused. I opened my mouth, but could not say a word.
"It is fortunate — very fortunate — that His Majesty — was pleased — to overlook it," Mr. Postham continued slowly. He paused again. "Fined three pounds," he said briskly, then, and walked away. So I went meekly from the scene of my first appearance in a good theater under the scornful and surprised glances of the other actors, who had expected to see the part taken from me, and I said bitterly to myself that if this was the reward of talent on the stage!
I did good work that season with William Gillette, as all the press notices showed. Every morning, lying luxuriously in bed in my lodgings, I pored over the London journals, seizing eagerly on every comment on my acting, reading and rereading it. I was the "most promising young actor on the English stage," I was "doing clever work," I was "the best Billy London has seen yet." To me, as I gazed at these notices, William Gillette was merely "also mentioned." I felt that I alone was making the play a success and I walked afterward up and down the Strand in a glow of pride and self-confidence, dressed in all the splendor money could buy, swinging my cane, nodding carelessly to the men I knew and picturing them saying to each other after I had passed, "He is the great actor at the Duke of York's Theater. I knew him once."
The season was drawing to a close and, learning that William Gillette was returning to America, I confidently expected nothing less than an invitation to return with him, when one day I arrived at the theater early and found a note awaiting me. I tore it open carelessly and read:
"Will you please call at St. James' Theater to-morrow afternoon? I should like to see you. "Mrs. Kendall."
"Oh, ho! Mrs. Kendall!" I said to myself. "Well, she will have to offer something good to get me!"