Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 1 of 3)



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"Right; it is not."

"It is not a farce."

"Nothing like it – that is, broadly speaking."

"I am speaking broadly. It is not a blood-thirsty melodrama, with a murder in it, and a wedding; or, if not that, a pair of lovers, just about to be tied together; or, if not that, a husband and wife torn from each other's arms. It amounts to the same thing, because the main point is that the man is falsely accused of the murder."

"Of course he is," said Mr. Lethbridge, "or where should we be?"

"Exactly," said Kiss, with a humorous imitation of Mr. Lethbridge's manner. "If that was not the case, where should we be? Worth considering. Perhaps worse off; perhaps better. I will not take it upon myself to judge. We are talking now of the regulation pattern – good old style, Leth, but old. Would stand a bad chance if it were not for the magnificent scenery and the wonderful dresses, mechanical changes, houses turned inside out, exteriors turned outside in, gas lowered to vanishing point to assist the delusion – splendid opportunity that for the lover and his lass, in the pit! Wish I was young again, and before the foot-lights, instead of behind them, so that I might take my imaginary little girl (whom I adore, from the crown of her pretty head to the tips of her little shoes) to the pit when such a melodrama, with the lights turned down, is being played. When I say 'regulation pattern,' Leth, don't mistake me; I am not speaking against it. As for originality – well, perhaps the least said about it the better. We were rehearsing a new melodrama the other day, and the subject cropped up on the stage. The scene-painter was there, and he took part in the discussion, though he spoke never a word."

"How could he do that without speaking?"

"Well, he winked."

"I don't see much in that," observed Mr. Lethbridge, somewhat mystified.

"Of course you don't, the reason being " – and good humour beamed in every feature of Kiss's merry face – "that you are not, like myself, a cynic."

"Come, that's good," protested Mr. Lethbridge: "you a cynic!"

"I would not have my enemies say so," said Kiss; "and don't you betray me at home. So it is settled that your piece is not a tragedy, nor a broad farce, nor a melodrama with a murder in it. Nor is it a comedy of character, bristling with smart sayings – everybody saying clever, ill-natured things about everybody else. No, Leth; your piece is a simple domestic drama, lighted up by the sweetest stars of life – the stars of pure love and a happy home."

"You have," said Mr. Lethbridge, stirred by the feeling which his friend threw into the words, "a remarkable felicity of expression. You are almost – a poet."

"A bread-and-butter poet, then. Yes; a simple drama of domestic life, upon which the stars of love and home are shining. That's what the critics say the next morning: 'It is refreshing to come across a play so sweet, so natural, so human.

Here are no high flights of the imagination; no violent twisting of ordinary events to serve a startling purpose; no dragging in of abnormal, precocious children, to show how clever they are; nothing, in short, out of drawing or out of proportion. The play is an idyl, in which all that is wholesome in every-day life is brought into prominence to gladden the heart and refresh the senses. It leaves a sweet taste in the mouth, and when the curtain fell upon the delightful story, the author was called again and again, and applauded with a heartiness which must have sent him home rejoicing to the bosom of his family. We trust that the success he won and deserved will encourage him to further efforts in this direction, and that on many future occasions he will charm and beguile us as he did last night. His feet are firmly planted on the ladder of fame, and he has only to go on as he has begun, to make his name a household word.'"

"Upon my word," said Mr. Lethbridge, "you almost take away my breath."

"But am I a true diviner?" asked Kiss.

"About the critics?"

"About the piece —your piece?"

"You are a wizard. I think if I were a dramatic author I should try to write precisely the kind of play you have described. You see, there is little else in my mind. But I am afraid you are wrong about the critics."

"Not at all," persisted Kiss. "Critics are human, like other people; and search the whole world through, you will find no song more popular than 'Home, sweet Home.'"

CHAPTER X
'MELIA JANE, GODDESS OF POTS AND PANS

While this conversation was proceeding there stood at a little distance from the speakers a man who had been walking arm in arm with the actor when the friends met, and who fell apart from Kiss when he clapped Mr. Lethbridge upon the shoulder. He was an anxious-eyed man, nervous, fidgety, with a certain tremulousness of limb and feature, denoting a troubled nature. His age was some thirty-five or thereabouts; his clothes were respectable and shabby; and although he took no part in the conversation, and did not obtrude himself, he did not remove his eyes from Kiss and Mr. Lethbridge. Kiss, turning, beckoned to him, and he joined the friends.

"You heard what we've been talking about," said the actor. "What do you think of it?"

"I wish," said the man, "that I could write such a piece."

"Ah," said Kiss, "it is easy to preach as we've been preaching, but to do the thing is a different pair of shoes. It comes by nature, or it comes not at all."

"But," said the man, "I don't believe it would be a success."

"Wait a moment," said Kiss; "I am forgetting my manners. Mr. Linton – Mr. Lethbridge."

The two shook hands.

"Mr. Linton," said Kiss to Mr. Lethbridge, in explanation, "is a dramatic author, and has written plays."

Mr. Linton sighed, and fidgeted with his fingers.

"Has he?" exclaimed Mr. Lethbridge. "And they have been played, of course?"

Mr. Linton sighed again, and inclined his head.

"I am really delighted," said Mr. Lethbridge. "I have never in my life spoken to a dramatic author, and have never shaken hands with one. Will you allow me?"

They shook hands again, Mr. Lethbridge effusively, Mr. Linton with mingled bashfulness, pride, and awkwardness.

"Successful pieces, I am sure," observed Mr. Lethbridge.

"More or less so," said Kiss. "We must take our rubs, my dear Leth."

"Of course, of course. We've got to take them."

"That's what I'm always telling Linton. We've got to take 'em. Why, you, now," pointing his finger at Mr. Lethbridge, "you're not a public man, and you have your rubs."

"I am not free from them," said Mr. Lethbridge, in a cheerful voice.

"There, now, Linton," said Kiss, with the manner of one who desired to point a moral, "our friend Lethbridge here is not a public man, and he has rubs. So you don't think his piece would be a success? Why, Sempronius?"

"An author must follow the fashion," replied Mr. Linton, "if he wants to live."

"He wants that, naturally." And here Kiss took Mr. Lethbridge aside, with, "Excuse me, Linton, a moment," and whispered, confidentially, "A little dashed. Had a knock-down blow. Last piece a failure. Produced a fort-night ago. Ran a week. I was in it, but could not save it. Consequence, out of an engagement; not serious to me, but to him – very. A man of genius; but not yet hit 'em quite. Will soon, or I'm the worst of actors. Which I am not – nor the best; but 'twill serve. Meanwhile, waiting for the spondulix to pour in, has wife and family to support. A modern Triplet. Has play which will take the town by storm. The play that failed was of a domestic turn. Very pretty; but lacked incident. Too much dialogue, too little action. He feels it – badly. Here," touching his heart, "and here," touching his stomach. They returned to Mr. Linton. "Proceed, Linton."

"The public," said Mr. Linton. "require red fire. Give it them. They want murders. Supply them. They want the penny-dreadful on the stage. Fling it at their heads. Ah! I've not been as wise as some I know."

"In point of ability," whispered Kiss again to Mr. Lethbridge, "he could wipe out the authors he refers to. Excuse him; he is not a bit malicious or envious; but he has been stung, and he's writhing. If you heard me read the play that failed, you would require a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs. He slaved at it for eight months; and dreamt of success with empty platters on his table. I wonder if people know anything of this, or ever give it a thought? But it won't do to encourage him. It does him good to lash out; but we must not agree with him when he's wrong. In his new play there's a part I should like to take. He wrote it with me in his eye. All will come right; till the time arrives, he must grin and bear it. 'Suffering is the badge of all his tribe.' But there are big plums in the pudding, old fellow, and his day to pick 'em will come." Then he said aloud to the moody author: "Don't talk stuff and nonsense. You don't copy, as a rule; you're original, and I make my bow to you; but in what you said you are copying the platitudinarians. What the public want are good plays, such as you can write, and good actors, who are not so scarce as croakers would have us believe. Cheer up, Linton! Where would be the glory of success if we could have it by whistling for it? Why, here we are at your very door, Leth! Now I call that singular."

"Why?" asked Mr. Lethbridge.

"Because we were coming to see you, to ask a favour."

"Anything I can do," said Mr. Lethbridge, knocking at the door, "you may depend upon."

"I told you so, Linton," said Kiss.

The dramatic author brightened up for a moment, but fell again immediately into a state of despondency.

"You're just in time for tea," said Mr. Lethbridge, kissing his wife, who opened the door for them. "Come in, come in. I've brought you some visitors, mother."

"How do you do, Mr. Kiss?" said Mrs. Lethbridge, shaking hands with the always welcome actor.

"Mother," said Mr. Lethbridge, "this is Mr. Linton, the celebrated author."

"I am glad to see you, sir," said Mrs. Lethbridge, inwardly disturbed by the thought that she had not got out her best tea service. "Mr. Kiss, will you take Mr. Linton into the drawing-room? You are at home, you know. Fanny and Bob will be in presently. Ph?be is here, father."

In point of fact, Ph?be, Fanny, and Bob, excited by the sound of the arrival of visitors, were on the first-floor landing, peeping over the balustrade to see who they were.

"It's Mr. Kiss," whispered Fanny.

"And a strange gentleman," whispered Bob.

"Uncle Leth said," whispered Ph?be, "'the celebrated author.' I wonder if he's joking?"

"They are going to stop to tea," whispered Fanny, "and mother has sent them into the drawing-room while she gets out the best tea-things. We must go and help her."

Aunt Leth, from the passage below, coughed aloud, having detected the presence of the young people, and there was an instant scuttling away above, and a sound of smothered laughter. To Aunt Leth's relief, this was not noticed by her visitors, who made their way into the drawing-room. It was called so more from habit than because it was a room set apart for holiday and grand occasions; there was no such room in the house of the Lethbridges, which was a home in the truest sense of the word.

Aunt Leth was deeply impressed by the circumstance of having a celebrated author in her house, and when the drawing-room door was closed, she asked her husband in the passage – speaking in a very low tone – what he had written.

"Why, don't you know, mother?" said Mr. Lethbridge; but the superior air he assumed – as though he was intimately acquainted with everything Mr. Linton had written, and was rather surprised at his wife's question – was spoilt by a shamefacedness which he was not clever enough to conceal.

"No, father," said Mrs. Lethbridge; adding, triumphantly, "and I don't believe you do, either."

"Well, to tell you the truth," said Mr. Lethbridge, with a little laugh, "I don't. But he is very celebrated. Mr. Kiss says so. He writes plays, and his last one was not a success. It has troubled him greatly, poor fellow. Give us a good tea, mother."

Mrs. Lethbridge nodded, and sent him in to his visitors, and went herself down to the kitchen to attend to her domestic arrangements, where she was presently joined by her children and Ph?be.

"We don't want you, Bob," said Mrs. Lethbridge to her son; "go and join the gentlemen."

"I'd sooner stop here, mother," said Robert.

"Go away, there's a good boy," said the mother; "you will only put things back."

Robert, however, showed no inclination to leave the kitchen, but hovered about Ph?be like a butterfly about a flower.

"Do you hear what mother says?" demanded Fanny, imperiously; she was given to lord it occasionally over her brother. "Go at once, and listen to the gentlemen, and have your mind improved."

"Now you're chaffing me," said Robert, "and you know that always puts my back up."

Mrs. Lethbridge looked around with affectionate distraction in her aspect.

"Go, Robert," said Ph?be.

"Not if you call me 'Robert,' said he.

"Well, Bob."

"All right, I'll vanish. Fanny, there's a smut on your nose."

Which caused Fanny to rub that feature smartly with her handkerchief, and then to ask Ph?be in a tone of concern, "Is it off?" This sent Robert from the kitchen laughing, while Fanny called out to him that she would pay him for it. She laughed too, when he was gone, and declared that he was getting a greater tease every day. Presently all was bustle; the best cups and saucers were taken from the cupboard, and Ph?be, with her sleeves tucked up, was dusting them; Fanny was cutting the bread and buttering it; Aunt Leth was busy with eggs and rashers of bacon, and the frying-pan was on the fire; while, attending to the frying-pan and the kettle and the teapot, and working away generally with a will, was the most important person in the kitchen – the goddess, indeed, of that region – whose name, with a strange remissness, has not yet been mentioned: 'Melia Jane!

In these days of fine-lady-servants, the mere mention of so inestimable a treasure is an agreeable thing; for if ever there was a devoted, untiring, unselfish, capable, cheerful slave of the broom and the pan, that being was 'Melia Jane. Up early in the morning, without ever being called; up late at night, without a murmur; no Sundays out, as a law, the violation of which was a graver matter than the separation of church and state; cooking, scrubbing, washing, with a light heart, and as happy as the day is long. Could I write an epic, I would set about it, and call it "'Melia Jane."

Not a beauty; somewhat the reverse, indeed. But "Lor!" as she used to say, scratching her elbow, "beauty's only skin-deep." Nevertheless, she worshipped it in the persons of Fanny and Ph?be, to whom she was devotedly attached. Of the two, she leaned, perhaps, more closely and affectionately to Ph?be, for whom she entertained the profoundest admiration, "Wenus," she declared, "couldn't 'old a candle to 'er." And had she been asked, in the way of disputation, under what circumstances and to what intelligible purpose that goddess could be expected to hold a candle to Ph?be, she would doubtless have been prepared with a reply which would have confounded the interrogator.

She had a history, which can be briefly recorded.

Like all careful housewives with limited incomes, Mrs. Lethbridge had her washing "done" at home, and 'Melia Jane's mother, in times gone by, was Aunt Leth's washer-woman. She died when 'Melia Jane was ten years old, and the child, being friendless and penniless, was admitted into Mrs. Lethbridge's kitchen as a kind of juvenile help. She proved to be so clever and willing, and so "teachable," as Mrs. Lethbridge said, that when the old servant left to get married, 'Melia Jane took her place, and from that day did the entire work of the house. For the present, this brief record is sufficient. More of 'Melia Jane anon.

Robert burst into the kitchen in a state of great excitement.

"Mother, you didn't tell me Mr. Linton was a dramatic author. Just think, Ph?be; he writes plays! Isn't it grand?"

The girls opened their eyes very wide. There was indeed a luminary in the house, a star of the first magnitude. A dramatic author! It was enough to make them tremble.

"But why have you left them, Bob?" asked Mrs. Lethbridge.

"I was told to go," replied Robert. "They did not want me. They're talking business."

"Business!" exclaimed Mrs. Lethbridge. "What business can they have with father?"

"Perhaps," suggested Robert, "he is going to take a theatre, and Mr. Linton is going to write the plays, and Mr. Kiss is going to act in them."

"What nonsense you talk!" said Mrs. Lethbridge.

"Mother," said Robert, solemnly, "my mind's made up."

"A very small parcel," remarked Fanny, thus paying him off for the smut on her nose.

"I'm serious," said Robert; "I'm fixed – yes, fixed as the polar star. That sounds well. I shall go on the stage."

"And off again, very quick," said Fanny.

"What! turn actor, Bob?" exclaimed Mrs. Lethbridge.

"Yes," said Robert, folding his arms; "a second Irving."

"Avaunt, and quit my sight!" cried Ph?be, seizing the rolling-pin and striking an attitude.

They all fell to laughing, and 'Melia Jane stared at the young people, with her eyes almost starting out of their sockets.

CHAPTER XI
KISS HAS SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT THEATRICAL MANAGERS

Meanwhile the gentlemen upstairs were discussing a serious subject.

"I told you about our friend's play," said Kiss to Mr. Lethbridge – "his undeservedly unsuccessful play, produced a fort-night since at the Star Theatre. There are lines in it which would make the fortune of a poet, but these are not poetical days – on the stage. At a certain theatre, where an eminent brother of the craft, to whom I take off my hat" – he had no hat to take off, but he went through the necessary action – "has the ear of the public, and a following which is simply amazing to contemplate – at that theatre, I grant you, the poetical drama can be produced with great results; and also at one other temple of the drama, where a lady, admired and loved by all, reigns as queen; but produced elsewhere, it is risky, very. It requires, for success, a perfect and harmonious combination of rare forces, and such a following as I have spoken of, and these are only to be found in those two theatres. Do you take?"

"Do I understand you?" said Mr. Lethbridge, deeply interested. "Yes."

"With such actors," continued Kiss, "with such an organization, with such resources, with such lavish, but not unwise, expenditure, with such a following, not only the poetical drama, but any kind of drama, may be staged with assured result. Had Linton's play been produced there, you would see him now all smiles instead of down in the dumps. I don't say to him 'What is the use?' A man has his feelings, and a dramatic author has a double share, which makes it bad for him when the reverse happens. Linton's play was not produced at one of the theatres I have indicated – more's the pity. But a time may come. Do you hear me, Linton?"

"I am deeply grateful to you," said Mr. Linton. "You are the best fellow in the world."

"That is sentiment, mere sentiment," said Kiss, coughing down the compliment. "We are now talking business, and I am, so to speak, showing our mutual friend the ropes, and letting him behind the scenes. Not quite the fairy-land most people imagine. I was engaged for the run of Linton's play, and as it ran off instead of on, I am now out of an engagement. Do I blame him? Not a bit of it. He would have as much reason to blame me. You see, Leth, there are certain rules and certain fashions in our line which it is as dangerous to violate as in most lines of business. For instance, would you take a shop on the wrong side of the road?"

"No," replied Mr. Lethbridge, rather vaguely.

"There are business sides and unbusiness sides. Here, a shop is worth five hundred pounds a year; across the road it isn't worth fifty. So with theatres. Here, comedy; here, comic opera; here, melodrama; here, spectacle; here, Shakespeare and the classic; and so on, and so on. Risk the unsuitable and you come to grief. That's what we did; for I'm bound to confess that Linton was largely influenced by my advice in the matter. I had so firm a belief in the play that I thought it would score anywhere. It did score at the Star, but it scored the wrong way, because it was played at the wrong theatre. A knock-down blow! What then? Why, rise, and at it again! – yes, though you get a dozen knock-down blows. Nil desperandum: that's my motto. Life's a fight. Are you waiting for a cue, Linton?"

"You are quite right in your observations," said the poor author, with a sad smile; "but it is easier for you to rise after a knock-down blow than it is with me. You are a favourite with the public; they welcome you the moment you make your appearance. The last time I appeared before them they howled at me. And it meant so much! It was not only a case of disappointed ambition and wounded vanity, but there was, at home – I beg your pardon; I scarcely know what I was about to say."



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