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In which I encounter the inexorable rules of a London hospital, causing much consternation; fight a battle with pride; and unexpectedly enter an upsetting situation.
I DID not find the hospital unpleasant, for I had enough to eat there, and although my burns were painful, it was a delight to be in a clean bed. I lay there three weeks, quite contented, and all day long, and when I could not sleep at night, I thought over my stage experience and the mistakes I had made in it and finally grew able to laugh at myself. It is the only valuable thing I have ever learned.
Life trips people up and makes them fall on their noses at every step. It takes the very qualities that make success and turns them into stumbling blocks, and when we go tumbling over them the only thing to do is to get up and laugh at ourselves. If I had not been a precocious, self-satisfied, egotistic boy, able to imagine unreal things and think them true, I could never have been a success on the stage, and if I had been none of those things I would not have thrown away the opportunity Mrs. Kendall gave me and been a failure. That is an Irish bull, but life must have its little joke, and there you are.
At the end of the three weeks my burns were sufficiently healed, and one day the nurse came and told me that I could leave the hospital.
"Very well," I said, "but how? I have no clothes."
"My goodness!" she said. "I — but you can't stay here, you know."
"Will you lend me a sheet?" I asked. "I must wear something."
"Oh, no; we couldn't do that," she replied, and went away, dazed by the problem. I lay there grinning to myself and ate my supper with good appetite. The next day the doctor came and looked at me and scratched his head and said testily that I was well enough to go and must go; I must get some clothes.
"How can I get clothes unless I go and earn them, and how can I earn them if I don't have any?" I asked him.
"Isn't there any way to get this lad any clothes?" he said to the nurse. She said she did not know, there had never been a case just like it before. She would ask the superintendent. She came back with the superintendent, and all three of them looked at me. The superintendent said firmly that I must go, that it was against the rules for me to stay any longer. I replied firmly that I would not go into the streets of London without any clothes. The superintendent shut her lips firmly and went away.
There was a great sensation in the hospital. My own garments had been destroyed in the explosion. The rules demanded that I go, but the rules provided no clothes for me; I would not go without clothes, and no one could feel my position unreasonable. The hospital swayed under the strain of the situation.
The next afternoon a representative of the Society for the Relief of the Deserving Poor called to see me. She asked a dozen questions, wrote the answers in a book and went away. Another day passed. The nurses were pale with suspense. No clothes arrived.
Wild rumors circulated that I was to be wrapped in a blanket and set out in the night, but they were contradicted by the fact that the rules did not provide for the loan of the blanket. Friendly patients urged me to be firm, kindly nurses told me not to worry, the superintendent was reported baffled by the rules of the charitable organizations, which did not provide for clothing patients in the charity hospitals.
Some natural resentment was felt against me for not fitting any rules, but the food came regularly and I ate and slept comfortably. On the fourth day, when it was felt that something desperate must be done, the situation suddenly cleared. Sidney arrived.
The representative of the S. R. D. P. had called at my mother's address in the course of her investigations as to my worthiness and found him there. He was playing in an East End theater and very much worried about my disappearance. On hearing of my plight he had hastened to the rescue and cut short my life of ease and plenty under the unwilling shelter of the hospital rules. He brought me clothes, and I departed, to the disappointment of the other patients who felt it an anti-climax.
Well fed and rested, and with the stimulus of Sidney's encouragement, I started again my search for a part. Much as I had hated the Strand at times, it was like coming home again to be tramping up and down the agents' stairs and exchanging boasts with the other actors while I waited in the outer offices. Usually I waited long hours, only to be sent away at last with the office boy's curt announcement that the agent would see no one, and when sometimes I did penetrate into the inner offices I met always the same, "Nothing in sight. Things are very quiet just now. Drop in again." Then I came out, with my old jaunty air hiding my bitter disappointment and tramped down the stairs and along the Strand and up to another office, to wait again.
Mrs. Dobbs, my mother's landlady, moved to Sweetbay, and being fond of my mother and her sweet gentle ways, had consented to take her there for a moderate rate. Sidney and I lived together in a bed-sitting-room in Alfred Place on very scant fare and I hated to face him at night.
"Well, any news?" he always asked, pleasantly enough, but I dreaded the moment and having to say, "No, not yet." It hurt my pride terribly, and after several months of it the misery of that first moment of meeting Sidney drove me into hurting my pride even more in another way.
"Look here, what's all this talk about playing lead and being with William Gillette worth to you?" an agent said to me one day. "You'll take anything you can jolly well get, no matter what it is, won't you? Well, Dailey, over at the Grand, is putting out a comedy next week with Casey's Circus. There's fifteen parts, none of 'em cast yet. Go and see what you can do."
I came out of his office in an agony of indecision, for while it was true that I had said to myself many times that I would take any part I could get, I had never imagined myself acting in Casey's Circus. All the pride that had survived those months of discouragement writhed at the idea — I who had been a hit in a West End theater acting a low vulgar comedy in dirty fourth-rate houses — why, it was not so good a chance as my part in Rags to Riches! I said savagely that I would not do it. Then I thought of Sidney and bit my lips and hesitated.
In the end, burning with shame and resentment, I went to see Dailey. At least a hundred third-rate actors packed the stairs to his office and more were blocking the street and sitting on the curbs before his door opened. I was crushed in the crowd of them, smothered by rank perfume and the close thick air of the dirty stairs, and I hated myself and the situation more every minute of the three hours I waited there, but I stayed, half hoping he would not give me a part. At least I could feel then that I had done all I could.
At last my turn came. I straightened my hat, squared my shoulders and marched in, determined to be very haughty and dignified. Mr. Dailey, a fat red-faced man, with his waistcoat unbuttoned, sat by a desk chewing a big cigar.
"Mr. Dailey," I said, "I —" I don't know how it happened. My foot slipped. I tried to straighten up, slipped again, fell on all fours over a chair, which fell over on me, and sat up on the floor with the chair in my lap.
"...want a part," I finished, furious.
Mr. Dailey howled and laughed and choked, and held his sides and laughed again and choked, purple in the face.
"You'll do," he said at last. "Great entrance! Great! Ten shillings a week and railway fares; what do you say to that, my, lad?"
"I won't take it," I retorted.