"A Despot on Tour"
MR. HOWARD HAWKER'S company, touring with a brace of comedies which in London had long outworn their vogue, arrived at Wattleborough. They were to play two evenings, and the box-office made a fair report. Not every actor who would have enrolled himself in Mr. Hawker's company. The veteran left no one in doubt as to his estimate of this privilege; he uttered his views on the present state of the profession with a vigour and perspicuity which in part resulted from his failure to achieve distinction on the boards, and partly explained it. Managers, he declared, were nowadays mere shopkeepers; he loathed their respectability and their unscrupulousness. Of genuine actors, he asserted that the breed had all but died out; men and women on the stage aimed at nothing but pecuniary and social success. Naturally, he found it difficult to collect, and harder still to hold together, a company after his own mind. His crustiness was not mollified by the attacks of gout, which, with other considerations, had led him to abandon acting; he merely commanded, and whoever enlisted under his banner, leading men or insignificant recruits, became subject to a rigid discipline. Mrs. Hawker, the second of that name, a middle-aged but still handsome woman, alone preserved her independent dignity; the despot never allowed himself to criticise, and rarely suspected that her acting gave any opportunity for censure. If newspaper men chanced to think differently in this matter, he loudly condemned them to everlasting perdition. The first night at Wattleborough was encouraging; a house nearly full, much applause, and Mrs. Hawker particularly well received. At ten o'clock next morning, as he and his wife were breakfasting together at their hotel, Mr. Hawker was told that a young lady wished to speak with him. "A young lady? What name?" "No name, sir. Wishes to see you in private." The manager looked at his wife, and laughed. "Stage-stricken damsel, ten to one. May as well see her." The stranger was standing alone in the ladies' sitting-room, and his first glance assured Mr. Hawker that he had to do with no barmaid or milliner's assistant. A young lady, this, in the strict sense of the word; perfectly dressed, comely of countenance, and her age not more than seventeen. The manager made his stateliest bow. "Madam, I am Mr. Howard Hawker. How can I be so happy as to serve you?" A profound agitation made the young lady incapable of replying. Mr. Hawker placed a chair for her, and spoke a few more words of reassuring civility. "I cannot tell you my name," said the other at length, abruptly, but in a very pleasant voice. "I have come to ask you - to beg your advice. I wish to become an actress. Please don't think I have foolish ideas." Mr. Hawker smiled. "I know quite well that I should have to begin in the very humblest way. I am quite ready for that." "You are aware, my dear young lady, that the profession is crowded?" "Oh, yes, I know it very well. But so many people, I believe, go into the profession in the wrong spirit. They think it is the short cut to - to all sorts of things. It's quite different with me. I like acting for its own sake; I do indeed - I have taken part in private theatricals, and people seemed to think I didn't do so badly. I don't want to play Juliet." She laughed with pretty confusion. "I'm a very practical person - if you only knew, I'm ready to work hard for years, if necessary." The manager's eyes twinkled with sympathetic interest. "Ah! Come now! If you really mean that. That's the spirit. I wish to Heaven I heard more of that kind of thing." The young lady reddened. "You are willing to help me?" she exclaimed, eagerly. "Wait. I mustn't inspire false hopes. I presume you are not of age yet?" "Oh, dear, no! I shall be seventeen in a few days. Am I too young?" The vivacity of her features, the quality of her voice, her modest yet spirited bearing, impressed the veteran very favourably indeed. He felt sure that the case was hopeless: an army of relatives lurked somewhere in the background, and would allow him no chance of enlisting this delightful girl, but he dallied with the tempting thought. "Not a bit, of it; the younger the better. But - pardon these necessary questions - are you free to choose a profession?" "I consider myself quite free," she answered, resolutely, and with a knitting of the brows. "I have only a little money, but, if it were impossible to support myself I could - I feel sure I could - manage to live for a year or two." Mr. Hawker reflected. "I have a suggestion to make. As I'm rather busy, would you talk with my wife, with Mrs. Hawker? I think it would be the best way. Something might be ----" The young lady readily assented, her face glowing in delighted anticipation. Having withdrawn, the manager held a quick conversation with his wife, and Mrs. Hawker spent nearly an hour, privately talking with the aspirant. "I know all!" she exclaimed, with burlesque profundity of note, on joining her husband again. "Just as you thought. Daughter of a big man - country house a few miles away - no mother - heavy father she can't get on with. Yesterday she came on a visit for a few days to friends in Wattleborough, and they were at the theatre last night. Before leaving home she had made up her mind to bolt; but nobody knows. Packed her bag for the visit as full as it would hold, and thinks she can get it away from her friend's house." "Yes. No good, of course. What's her father's name?" "Major Saxby, Medlow House." "By Gad, I'll go and see him! Who knows? He might consent ----" "Rubbish! She's the only child." "I shall go and see him. In any case, it's the right thing to do. If we send her away, ten to one she'll take train for London. A determined little wench, and, by Gad, has the right stuff in her. Too risky to let her go off on her own hook. The Major likely to be at home?" "I only knew he was there yesterday." They consulted a railway guide. Medlow Station was some six miles away, and there was a train presently. Mrs. Hawker, they arranged, should take Miss Saxby round the theatre, and amuse her for as long as possible, then bring her back to the hotel for luncheon. "Of course, I promised her faithfully to keep the secret," said the actress. "Oh, of course. I'll come round the Major. Always get on well with old military coves. He'll be glad enough to know she came to an honest man." Mr. Hawker took the train to Medlow, and at about one o'clock walked up the drive, a noble avenue of beeches, which led to Major Saxby's house. To his satisfaction the Major was at home; but when he sent in a card - a professional one - the servant came back with an unfavourable countenance. "Would he make known his business?" "To the Major himself," replied Mr. Hawker, with sudden warmth; "certainly not to anyone else." "Then, I am afraid Major Saxby cannot see you; he is engaged." "Young man, you will be good enough to tell your master that Mr. Howard Hawker has come from Wattleborough to see him on very special business - very special business, indeed." The servant carried this message, and it was effectual. Mr. Hawker passed through the great hail, entered the library, and found himself face to face with a tall, thin, choleric looking man, who spoke at once in a high voice not too studiously modulated. "Now, sir, pray be as brief as you can. I am on the point of leaving for London, and have only five minutes to spare." The manager, whose blood was already heated, glared at the peremptory gentleman. "Sir, if you have no time to spare, my business had better be postponed. I am not in the habit of hurrying myself." "Then be good enough to leave me," said the Major, with barely restrained wrath, "and, if you will, communicate with me in writing." "Sir," shouted the manager, "I'll leave you quickly enough, but I'm bothered if I take the trouble of writing to you! Good morning." It was the encounter of two potentates, peppery, both of them, and neither accustomed to give way in a contest. Major Saxby despised the "actor fellow," and felt sure his alleged business was a mere pretence. Mr. Howard Hawker cursed the haughty aristocrat, and chuckled fiercely at the thought of his power to be revenged. It was all over in a moment. The manager, as no train served for his return, took a fly to Wattleborough and vowed that Major Saxby should pay for it. Tired, hungry, divided between wrath and glee, he reached the hotel, where Mrs. Hawker and Miss Saxby were at lunch in a private room. With an apology for his lateness, he sat down and ate heartily, addressing now and then a friendly word to his guest, who was nervous but exhilarated. "Young lady," he said, at length, leaning back and assuming a grave visage, "are you still in the same mind?" "Indeed I am." "Then," - he glanced at his wife - "allow me to make a suggestion. To-morrow is Sunday, and by the 9.15 we leave for Millington, where we shall give, as here, two performances. Now, I am able to offer you a part - a very small part, but still a part - in the piece we give at Millington on Monday night. You will easily learn your words; you come on only once, and there will be plenty of time for me to put you in the way of it. What do you say to this?" It took the girl's breath away, and had scarcely less effect upon Mrs. Hawker, who in vain tried to read her husband's face. "You are very kind," faltered the aspirant. "Do you shirk it, young lady? Are you afraid?" "No, no; I accept, with gratitude!" "Good! Consider it settled." He waved a royal hand. "Now pray tell me whether you live in Wattleborough. Should you prefer to remain here quietly at the hotel till to-morrow morning? Or have you arrangements to make?" Miss Saxby, pale but self-possessed, was ready with her reply. She had friends in the town whom she must see, but she would return to the hotel to pass the night. This being approved, she took leave, with abundant thanks; and the manager was able to give his wife an explanation of what he had done. Walking about the room, he told the story of Major Saxby's insolent behaviour, and gloried in the revenge he was about to take. Miss Saxby should tread the boards of the Queen's Theatre, Millington, come of it what might. The stiff-necked old aristocrat had gone to London, where, if he stayed for a day or two, startling news would reach him. Mrs. Hawker entered into the jest, but not without anxiety. The young lady's plan, she said, was to escape from her friends at Wattleborough, on the pretence that she felt uneasy after a fit of ill- temper in which she had parted with her father, and must go home to make it up; that she would get away by train, travel to London, where a friend would receive her, and there think of the next step. This, if Mr. Hawker could give her no help. Alter what had happened, she would somehow adapt the scheme to the circumstances, being a decidedly ingenious young woman. Now, Miss Saxby's disappearance from the house of her friends, people living in a remote part of the town, had caused surprise and uneasiness, which was not diminished by the arrival of a telegram for her. This despatch was to inform her that her father had suddenly been called to London; and on opening it, which she did instantly, before uttering a word as to her singular behaviour, the young lady saw a good opportunity of gaining the end she had in view. "I can't tell you what it is," she exclaimed with a face that would have delighted Mr. Hawker, "but it's from father, and I must go home as soon as possible. Mysteries as usual, yes," she added smiling. "All I can say is, that before I came away, father and I had one of our worst quarrels, and I think it'll be all right now if I go back this afternoon. No, I can't tell you where I have been this morning. Mysteries again. I'm the most mysterious person you ever knew." She kept the telegram tight in her hand, and talked on as if suddenly relieved from some oppression of spirits. The friends had no choice but to let her depart; she was, presently, accompanied to the station, and seen off to Medlow. Here she would gladly have alighted to steal home and pack more of her possessions, for never was young lady of seventeen more desperately resolved to escape from domestic rule; but, though her father had gone away, her severe aunts, two in number, reigned at Medlow House. So she had no choice but to travel farther on, to wait at an unknown station, and, long after nightfall, journey back to Wattleborough, where, with joy and tremors, she regained the hotel. There was now little danger of discovery before she had got away and begun her professional career - her "professional career!" To-morrow morning, it being Sunday, she would easily, with a little veiling of the face, avoid all risks on the way to the station. And at Millington, twenty miles distant, not a soul knew her. That same night, when he returned from the theatre, Mr. Hawker showed her the part she was to play at Millington. It consisted of some thirty words, uttered by half-dozens. She took the copy to bed, and did not sleep until she knew the speeches perfectly. She was to be called Miss Woodward, a name of her choosing from a book she had recently read. With Miss Woodward the chief members of the company were next day made acquainted, as they travelled to Millington; and all of them knew that their manager had a joke in hand, though they were not permitted to taste its full flavour. The young lady tried to see these new friends in a light of sympathy and admiration, but, even before reaching the journey's end, she found herself regretting their faults of manner, their defective education. She was under Mr. Hawker's wing, and everyone behaved to her with entire respect; yet the result of the morning's experience was undeniable disillusion. Moreover, she had a slight headache; enough, of course, to account for her not viewing the prospect quite so hopefully as yesterday. At Millington early in the afternoon, Mr. Hawker invited her to step round with him to the theatre, where they found two or three men lounging and talking amid a dim-lit wilderness which made her heart sink. After a word or two with these individuals, the manager conducted her to a room, where there was, at all events, daylight, though the window seemed not to have been cleaned for years. "Here we can have a quiet little rehearsal," he said, genially. "Afterwards, we'll go on to the stage, and you shall learn to walk. Yes, learn to walk, my dear young lady; or, rather, make a beginning of learning. You thought you could walk? Ha, ha! We shall see, we shall see." The quiet little rehearsal lasted rather more than two hours, and was a more horrible ordeal than Miss Saxby had ever conceived. Altogether losing sight of the fact that he could not hope to retain her in his company, that he was merely anxious to exasperate her father, Mr. Hawker put the girl through his very severest drill. It annoyed him, to start with, when he found her by no means so bright as at their first meeting; he would make no allowance for the circumstances. Possessed by artistic fury, he insisted on drawing out, at once, all the ability he divined as lurking in her. The flatness and awkwardness with which she spoke her phrases - for the manager's stern aspect of business utterly disconcerted her - soon drove him out of patience. By the exertion of marvellous self- restraint, Mr. Hawker used no oaths, but his denunciation, his mockery, his attitudes which seemed to threaten personal violence, brought the victim all but to a fainting state. And at length she burst into tears. "Come, come! Pooh, pooh." He shook her shoulder paternally. "What's all this? Was I rather rough?" The miserable young lady pleaded her headache. "Headache!" he echoed, reproachfully. "I hope you're not subject to that kind of thing? We'll go on to the stage; the fresh air will do you good." He led her out of the now dusky room into a darkness so complete that only by striking a match could he find his way. On the stage, by a yellow flare of gas, a carpenter was doing some sort of work, and another man, smoking a pipe, idly watched him. Before these people, Miss Saxby received her first lesson in deportment, which lasted an hour. It was an effort of heroism, for she felt scarcely able to stand; but the manager gave her a word of praise now and then, and behaved less violently than in the private room. "Well, that'll do for the present," he said, at length. "To-morrow morning you will be here with the company at ten." She returned to the hotel, drank a cup of tea, and went to bed. A coward hope that she might be too ill to get up to-morrow was her only consolation as she lay through the long hours, crying and suffering. But sleep came, and on Monday morning Mrs. Hawker's kind attentions partly restored her to a hopeful frame of mind. It was a day of painful effort and harassing emotions. Before the whole company she had to go through her wretched little part; now shrinking with shame, now over-bold by mere force of desperation. The words grew hateful to her ears. A contemptuous smile on the face of the actress with whom her scene was played made her feel the meanest of mortals, and more than once she was sorely tempted to flee from the theatre, to escape and hide herself anywhere. But in the end the manager declared himself pretty well satisfied, and, haranguing the company, lauded her spirit of perseverance. By this time it was known at Medlow House that Miss Saxby had disappeared from Wattleborough. On Monday morning, one of the aunts received a letter in which an account was given of the young lady's sudden departure for home, with private comments on the singularity of her manner. In an hour or two her falsehoods were disclosed, and alarm was at its height. A telegram to the Major at his London hotel remained unanswered; owing to his movements in town he did not receive it till late at night. Travelling by the newspaper train on Tuesday morning, the enraged and anxious father reached home about nine o'clock. No news had arrived, no conjecture as to the girl's whereabouts could be formed. But at this moment came the postman, and among the letters delivered was one which Major Saxby read with tumultuous feelings. "Sir," wrote his correspondent, "though your behaviour when I recently called upon you would be quite sufficient to excuse my silence, I will not leave you ignorant of the gratifying fact that your daughter makes her first appearance, this evening, on the stage of the Queen's Theatre, Millington. Her part is a small one, but you will understand that this could not be otherwise. The young lady shows an admirable spirit, and I have spared no pains in preparing her for her debut. With perseverance, I have no doubt she may become an ornament of the noble profession she has adopted. Offering you my sincere congratulations, "I am, Sir, faithfully yours, "HOWARD HAWKER." Thrusting this letter into his pocket, and without a word of information to the distracted ladies, Major Saxby rushed from the house. He drove post-haste into Wattleborough, and there caught a train for Millington. Before noon he arrived at the Queen's Theatre. The box office was open and he demanded the manager. Mr. Hawkins, anticipating this visit, had given his instructions. "What name shall I say, Sir?" inquired the official. "There is my card." The Major cooled his heels for some five minutes. "Mr. Hawker is engaged, Sir. Will you let him know on what business you have come?" "He knows my business perfectly well," answered the Major sternly. "Tell him so and that I'm not in the mood to stand any nonsense." Yes, Sir." Of one thing Major Saxby was able to assure himself; the playbill at the theatre did not exhibit his daughter's name. Possibly the old ruffian had told a mere lie. As he stood fuming, the official came back and reported that Mr. Hawker could only spare a minute or two. The Major was led into a room, and the manager rose to receive him with cold dignity. "Well, Sir? Did you receive my letter this morning? Pray be as brief as possible. I am very busy." "What is the meaning of this insolence?" "Be careful, Major! One word too much, and I'll have you kicked into the street. What the deuce do you mean, Sir, by talking about insolence? At considerable inconvenience to myself, I went from Wattleborough to your house to speak with you about your daughter, who had applied to me for advice and assistance. You remember, no doubt, how I was received. By Gad, Sir, I am not accustomed to such treatment Whether you know it or not, my position and my career entitle me to respect, even from a Major Saxby. And that respect I will have, Sir, or know the reason why." The Major began to recognise a kindred spirit, and the explanation of Mr. Hawker's call at Medlow House in a great measure disarmed him. "There has been a grievous misunderstanding, Mr. Hawker," he said, quietly. "When you came to Medlow, you found me in a great hurry, and, I will add, in a very bad temper. I think, as you had brought news of such moment to me, you should have overlooked my hastiness; but of that we'll say no more. Have the kindness to explain this astounding letter of yours." Deliberately and somewhat pompously, the manager made known all that concerned Miss Saxby. "She played last night, Major," he added, "and played, I am bound to say, very well, everything considered. This young lady has a future; and, in my opinion, it would be unpardonable to interfere with her manifest vocation. I am prepared, Major Saxby, to ----" The listener could control himself no longer. "What you are prepared to do, Mr. Hawker, does not in the least concern me. I must immediately see my daughter." "By all means. You will find her at the Bull Hotel, where she is probably receiving instruction from Mrs. Hawker." Fiery words quivered upon his tongue, but the Major kept them back. He could not trust himself to say anything at all, and with merely a bow left the room. Mr. Hawker sat down and chuckled; but, foreseeing the issue of Miss Saxby's interview with her father, he also sighed over the loss of a more promising pupil than had for a long time come under his hands. Major Saxby was detained at the hotel for nearly an hour. In the end, a cab conveyed him and his daughter to the station. Miss Saxby was weeping, not, however, inconsolably; the Major, perspiring freely, kept a grave, but not severe, silence. THE END. Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan, on 18 July 2002.