Peeps at People
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"I have a leaning towards the Empire style," said I.
Sir Henry turned immediately and roared upward into the drops: "Hi, Billie, set the third act of 'Sans Gene,' and tell my valet to get out my Bonapartes. The lady has a leaning towards the Empire. Excuse me for one moment, Miss Witherup," he added, turning to me. "If you will remain where you are until I have the room ready for you, I will join you there in five minutes."
The curtain was immediately lowered, and I sat quietly in the box, as requested, wondering greatly what was going to happen. Five minutes later the curtain rose again, and there, where all had been bare and cheerless, I saw the brilliantly lit room wherein Bonaparte as Emperor has his interview with his ex-laundress. It was cosey, comfortable, and perfect in every detail, and while I was admiring, who should appear at the rear entrance but Bonaparte himself – or, rather, Sir Henry made up as Bonaparte.
"Dear me, Sir Henry!" I cried, delightedly. "You do me too much honor."
"That were impossible," he replied, gallantly. "Still, lest you be embarrassed by such preparations to receive you, let me say that this is my invariable custom, and when I know in advance of the tastes of my callers, all is ready when they arrive. Unfortunately, I have had to keep you waiting because I did not know your tastes."
"Do you mean to say that you adapt your scenery and personal make-up to the likings of the individual who calls?" I cried, amazed.
"Always," said he. "It is easy, and I think courteous. For instance, when the Archbishop of Canterbury calls upon me I have Canterbury Cathedral set here, and wear vestments, and receive him in truly ecclesiastical style. The organ is kept going, and lines of choir-boys, suitably garbed, pass constantly in and out.
"When the King of Denmark called I had the throne-room scene of 'Hamlet' set, and we talked, with his Majesty sitting on the throne, and myself, clad as the melancholy Prince, reclining on a rug before him. He expressed himself as being vastly entertained. It gave him pleasure, and was no trouble to me beyond giving orders
to the stage-manager. Then when an old boyhood friend of mine who had gone wrong came to see me, hearing that he was an inebriate, as well as a thief, I received him in the character of Dubose, in the attic scene of the 'Lyons Mail.'"
"A very interesting plan," said I, "and one which I should think would be much appreciated by all."
"True," replied Sir Henry. And then he laughed. "It never failed but once," said he. "And then it wasn't my fault. Old Beerbohm Tree came to visit me one morning, and I had the graveyard scene of 'Hamlet' set, and myself appeared as the crushed tragedian. I thought Tree had some sense of humor and could appreciate the joke, but I was mistaken. He got as mad as a hatter, and started away in a rage. If he hadn't fallen into the grave on the way out, I'd never have had a chance to explain that I didn't mean anything by it."
By this time I had clambered back to the stage again, and was about to sit down on one of the very handsome Empire sofas in the room, when Sir Henry gave a leap of at least two feet in the air, and roared with rage.
"Send the property-man here!" he cried, trembling all over and turning white in the face."Send him here; bring him in chains. If he's up-stairs, throw him down; if he's down-stairs, put him in a catapult and throw him up. It matters not how he comes, as long as he comes."
I shrank back in terror. The man's rage seemed almost ungovernable, and I observed that he held a poker in his hand. Up and down the room he strode, muttering imprecations upon the property-man, until I felt that if I did not wish to see murder done I would better withdraw.
"Excuse me, Sir Henry," said I, rising, and speaking timidly, "I think perhaps I'd better go."
"Sit down!" he retorted, imperiously, pointing at the sofa with the poker. I sat down, and just then the property-man arrived.
"Want me, S'rennery?" he said.
Irving gazed at him, with a terrible frown wrinkling his forehead, for a full minute, during which it seemed to me that the whole building trembled, and I could almost hear the seats in the top gallery creak with nervousness.
"Want you?" he retorted, witheringly. "Yes, I want you – as an usher, perhaps; as a flunky to announce that a carriage waits; as a Roman citizen to say Hi-hi! but as a property-man, never!"
There was another ominous pause, and I could see that the sarcasm of the master sank deeply into the soul of the hireling.
"Wha – what 'ave I done, S'rennery?" asked the trembling property-man.
"What have you done?" roared Sir Henry. "Look upon that poker and see!"
The man looked, and sank sobbing to the floor.
"Heaven help me!" he moaned. "I have a sick grandfather, S'rennery," he added. "I was up with him all night."
The great man immediately became all tenderness. Throwing the poker to one side, he sprang to where his unfortunate property-man lay, and raised him up.
"Why the devil didn't you say so?" he said, sympathetically. "I didn't know it, Henderson, my dear old boy. Never mind the poker. Let it go. I forgive you that. Here, take this ?20 note, and don't come back until your grandfather is well again."
It was a beautiful scene, and so pathetic that I almost wept. The property-man rose to his feet, and putting the ?20 note in his pocket, walked dejectedly away.
Sir Henry turned to me, and said, his voice husky with emotion: "Pardon me, Miss Witherup! I was provoked."
"It was a magnificent scene, Sir Henry," said I. "But what was the matter with the poker? I thought it rather a good one."
"It is," said he, sitting down on a small chair and twiddling his thumbs. "But, you see, this is an Empire scene, and that confounded thing is a Marie Antoinette poker. Why, if that had happened at a public performance, I should have been ruined."
"Might not Bonaparte have used a Marie Antoinette poker?" I asked, to draw him out.
"Bonaparte, Miss Witherup," he answered, "might have done anything but that. You see, by the time he became Emperor every bit of household stuff in the palace had been stolen by the French mobs. Therefore it is fair to assume that the palace was entirely refurnished when Bonaparte came in, and as at that time there was no craze for Louis Quinze, or Louis Seize, or Louis number this, that, and the other, it is not at all probable that Napoleon would have taken the trouble to snoop around the second-hand shops for a poker of that kind. Indeed, it is more than probable that everything he had in the palace was absolutely new."
"What a wonderful mind you must have, Sir Henry, to think of these things!" I said, enthusiastically.
"Miss Witherup," said the actor-knight, impressively, "this is an age of wonderful minds, and there are so many of them that he who wishes to rise above his fellows must be careful of every detail. Would I have been a knight to-day had it not been for my care of details? Never. It would have gone to Willie Edouin, or to my friend Tree, or to some other actor of the same grade. My principle, Miss Witherup, is not original. I look after the details, and the results take care of themselves. It is the old proverb of the pennies and the pounds all over again."
"It is wisdom," I said, oracularly. "But it must be wearing."
"Oh no," said Sir Henry, with a gesture of self-deprecation. "There are so many details that I have had to make up a staff of advisers. As a matter of fact, I am not a man. I am a combination of men. In the popular mind I embody the wisdom, the taste, the culture, the learning of many. In fact, Miss Witherup, while I am not London, London finds artistic expression in me."
"And you are coming to America again?" I asked, rising, for I felt I ought to go, I was so awed by the humble confession of my host.
"Some day," said he. "When times are better."
"Why, Sir Henry," I cried, "you who have just given ?20 to your property-man can surely afford to cross – "
"I referred, madam," he interrupted, "to times in America, for I contemplate charging $5 a stall when next I visit you. You see, my next visit will be the first of a series of twenty farewell seasons which I propose to make in the States, which I love dearly. Don't forget that, please —which I love dearly. I want your people to know."
"I shall not, Sir Henry," said I, holding out my hand. "Good-bye."
"Say au revoir," he replied. "I shall surely see you at to-night's performance."
And so we parted.
On the way down the Strand, back to my rooms, I met the property-man, who was evidently waiting for me.
"Excuse me, miss," said he, "but you saw?"
"Saw what?" said I.
"How he called me down about the Marie Antoinette poker?" he replied, nervously.
"Yes," said I, "I did."
"Well, it was all arranged beforehand, miss, so that you would be impressed by his love for and careful attention to details. That's all," said he. "We other fellers at the Lyceum has some pride, miss, and we wants you to understand that S'rennery isn't the only genius on the programme, by good long odds. It's not knowin' that that made her Majesty the Queen make her mistake."
"I didn't know, Mr. Henderson, that her Majesty had made a mistake," said I, coldly.
"Well, she did, miss. She knighted S'rennery as a individual, when she'd ought to have knighted the whole bloomin'
theaytre. There's others than him as does it!" he observed, proudly. "King Somebody knighted a piece of steak. Why couldn't the Queen knight the theaytre?"
Which struck me as an idea of some force, although I am a great admirer of a man who, like Sir Henry, can dominate an institution of such manifest excellence.
So pleased was I with my experience at the Lyceum Theatre that, fearing to offset the effects upon my nerves of Sir Henry Irving's wonderful cordiality, I made no more visits to the homes of celebrities for two weeks, unless a short call on Li Hung-Chang can be considered such. Mr. Chang was so dispirited over the loss of his yellow jacket and the partition of the Chinese Empire that I could not get a word out of him except that he was not feeling "welly well," and that is hardly sufficient to base an interview on for a practically inexperienced lady journalist like myself.
I therefore returned to English fields again for my next interview, and having heard that the Rev. Ian Maclaren was engaged on a translation into English of his Scottish stories, I took train to Liverpool, first having wired the famous object of my visit of my intention. He replied instantly by telegraph that he was too busy to receive me, but I started along just the same. There is nothing in the world that so upsets me as having one of my plans go awry, and I certainly do not intend to have my equanimity disturbed for the insufficient reason that somebody else is busy. So I wired back to Liverpool as follows:
Dr. Maclaren being a courteous man, and I being a lady, I felt confident that this would fetch him; and it apparently did, for two hours later I received this message:
To this I immediately replied:
The reader will observe that it takes a smart British author to escape from an American lady journalist once she has set her heart on interviewing him. But I did not go to Edinburgh. I am young, and have not celebrated my thirtieth birthday more than five times, but I am not a gudgeon; so I refused to be caught by the Edinburgh subterfuge, and stuck to my original proposition of going to Liverpool on the eleven sixty-seven; and, what is more, I wore my Highland costume, and all the way down studied a Scotch glossary, until I knew the difference between such words as dour and hoots as well as if I had been born and bred at Loch Macglasgie.
As I had expected, Dr. Maclaren was there, anxiously awaiting developments, and as I stepped out of my carriage he jumped from behind a huge trunk by which he thought he was concealed, and fled through the Northwestern Hotel out into the street, and thence off in the direction of the Alexandra Docks. I followed in hot pursuit, and, by the aid of a handy hansom, was not long in overtaking the unwilling author. It may be said by some that I was rather too persistent, and, knowing that the good Doctor did not wish to be interviewed, should have relinquished my quest. It was just that quality in Dr. Maclaren's make-up that made me persist. There are so few successful authors who may be said to possess the virtue of modesty in the presence of an interviewer that I determined to catch one who was indeed the only one of that rare class I had ever met.
"Dr. Maclaren?" I cried, as I leaped out of the hansom, and landed, fortunately, on my feet – a lady journalist is a good deal of a feline in certain respects – directly in his path.
"The same," he replied, pantingly. "And you are Miss Witherup?"
"The very same," I retorted, coldly.
"I am perfectly delighted to see you," he said, removing his hat and mopping his brow, which the unwonted exercise he was taking had caused to drip profusely. "Perfectly charmed, Miss Witherup."
I eyed him narrowly. "One wouldn't have thought so," I said, with a suspicious emphasis, "from the way you were running away from me."
"Running away, my dear Miss Witherup?" he gasped, with an admirable affectation of innocence. "Why, not at all."
"Then why, Dr. Maclaren," I asked, "were you running towards the docks within ten seconds of the arrival of my train?"
To the gentleman's credit be it said that he never hesitated for a moment.
"Why?" he cried, in the manner of one cut to the heart by an unjust suspicion. "Why? Because, madam, when you got out of that railway carriage I did not see you, and fearing that I had mistaken your message, and that instead of coming from London by rail you were coming from America by steamer, I hastened off down towards the docks in the hope of welcoming you to England, and helping you through the custom-house. You wrong me, madam, by thinking otherwise."
The gentleman's tact was so overwhelmingly fine that I forgave him his fiction, which was not quite convincing, and took him by the hand.
"And now," said I, "may I see you at home?"
A gloomy cloud settled over the Doctor's fine features.
"That is my embarrassment," he said, with a deep sigh. "I haven't any."
"What?" I cried.
"I have been evicted," he said, sadly.
"You? For non-payment of rent?" I asked, astonished.
"Not at all," said the Doctor, taking a five-pound note from his pocket and throwing it into the street. "I have more money than I know what to do with. For heresy. My house belongs to a man who does not like the doctrines of my books, and he put us out last Monday. That is why – "
"I understand," I said, pressing his hand sympathetically. "I am so sorry! But cheer up, Doctor," I added. "I have been sent here by an American newspaper that never does anything by halves. I have been told to interview you at home. It must be done. My paper spares no expense. Therefore, when I find you without a home to be interviewed in, I am authorized to provide you with one. Come, let us go and purchase a furnished house somewhere."
He looked at me, astonished.
"Well," he gasped out at length, "I've seen something of American enterprise, but this beats everything."
"I suppose we can get a furnished house for $10,000?" I said.
"You can rent all Liverpool for that," he said. "Suppose, instead of going to that expense, we run over to the Golf Links? I'm very much at home there, though I don't play much of a game."
"Its atmosphere is very Scottish," said I.
"It is indeed," he replied. "Indeed, it's too Scotch for me. I can hold my own with the great bulk of Scotch dialect with ease, but when it comes to golf terms I'm a duffer from Dumfries. There are words like 'foozle' and 'tee-off' and 'schlaff' and 'baffy-iron' and 'Glenlivet.' I've had 'em explained to me many a time and oft, but they go out of one ear just as fast as they go in at the other. That's one reason why I've never written a golf story. The game ought to appeal strongly to me for two reasons – the self-restraint it imposes upon one's vocabulary of profane terms, and the large body of clerical persons who have found it adapted to their requirements. But the idiom of it floors me; and after several ineffectual efforts to master the mysteries of its glossary, I gave it up. I can drive like a professional, and my putting is a dream, but I can't converse intelligently about it, and as I have discovered that half the pleasure of the game lies in talking of it afterwards, I have given it up."
By this time we had reached the railway station again, and a great light as of an inspiration lit up the Doctor's features.
"Splendid idea!" he cried. "Let us go into the waiting-room of the station, Miss Witherup. You can interview me there. I have just remembered that when I was lecturing in America the greater part of my time was passed waiting in railway stations for trains that varied in lateness between two and eight hours, and I got to feel quite at home in them. I doubt not that in a few moments I shall feel at home in this one – and then, you know, you need not bother about your train back to London, for it leaves from this very spot in twenty minutes."
He looked at me anxiously, but he need not have. When I discovered that he could not master the art of golfing sufficiently to be able to talk about it at least, he suddenly lost all interest to me. I have known so many persons who were actually only half baked who could talk intelligently about golf, whether they played well or not – the tea-table golfers, we call them at my home near Weehawken – that it seemed to be nothing short of sheer imbecility for a person to confess to an absolute inability to brag about "driving like a professional" and "putting like a dream."
"Very well, Doctor," said I. "This will do me quite as well. I'm tired, and willing to go back, anyhow. Don't bother to wait for my departure."
"Oh, indeed!" he cried, his face suffusing with pleasure. "I shall be delighted to stay. Nothing would so charm me as to see you safely off."
I suppose it was well meant, but I couldn't compliment him on his "putting."
"Are you coming to America again?" I asked.
"I hope to some day," he replied. "But not to read or to lecture. I am coming to see something of your country. I wish to write some recollections of it, and just now my recollections are confused. I know of course that New York City is the heart of the orange district of Florida, and that Albany is the capital of Saratoga. I am aware that Niagara Falls is at the junction of the Hudson and the Missouri, and that the Great Lakes are in the Adirondacks, and are well stocked with shad, trout, and terrapin, but of your people I know nothing, save that they gather in large audiences and pay large sums for the pleasure of seeing how an author endures reading his own stuff. I know that you all dine publicly always, and that your men live at clubs while the ladies are off bicycling and voting, but what becomes of the babies I don't know, and I don't wish to be told. I leave them to the consideration of my friend Caine. When I write my book, Scooting through Schoharis; or, Long Pulls on a Pullman, I wish it to be the result of personal observation and not of hearsay."
"A very good idea," said I. "And will this be published over your own name?"
"No, madam," he replied. "That is where we British authors who write about America make a mistake. We ruin ourselves if we tell the truth. My book will ostensibly be the work of 'Sandy Scootmon.'"
"Good name," said I. "And a good rhyme as well."
"To what?" he asked.
"Hoot mon!" said I, with a certain dryness of manner.
Just then the train-bell rang, and the London Express was ready.
"Here, Doctor," said I, handing him the usual check as I rose to depart. "Here is a draft on London for $5000. Our thanks to go with it for your courtesy."
He looked annoyed.
"I told you I didn't wish any money," said he, with some asperity. "I have more American fifty-cent dollars now than I can get rid of. They annoy me."
And he tore the check up. We then parted, and the train drew out of the station. Opposite me in the carriage was a young woman who I thought might be interested in knowing with whom I had been talking.
"Do you know who that was?" I asked.
"Very well indeed," she replied.
"Ian Maclaren," I said.
"Not a bit of it," said she. "That's one of our head detectives. We know him well in Liverpool. Dr. Maclaren employs him to stave off American interviewers."
I stared at the woman, aghast.
"I don't believe it," I said. "If he'd been a detective, he wouldn't have torn up my check."
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