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STROLLERS AT DUMBLEDOWNDEARY.
THE strollers. Have not the righteous powers of law, reform, science, and
sectarianism been directed for centuries against the strollers? There have been
wise Justices in ruffs, and doublets, and trunk-hose, determined to put the
strollers down, and most signally failing in so doing, ever since the time of
the Spanish Armada; just as, I dare say, in the mythic time of San Apollo and
all the gods and goddesses, the great Justice Midas—for all that he was
squire, knight of the shire, and custos rotulorum—failed in putting the
strollers of his epoch down. Strollers have been declared rogues and vagabonds
by all sorts of statutes: pulpit thunder and quartersessions lightning have
been levelled against them times out of number. No matter; the strollers have a
principle of life in them stronger than the whole family of Shallows. Hunted
from populous neighbourhoods, and threatened with all those legal perils which
attend the dire English crime of being unlicensed, they are surely to be found,
after apparently irretrievable extinguishment, cosily ensconced in some quiet
little village, the marvel and delight of the unsophisticated, as they have been
Here they are, this blessed spring-tide afternoon, in my dear Dumbledowndeary. Their wheels have been new tired, some fresh stitches have been put into the buskin, an additional inch has been added to the cothurnus, and some extra dabs have been given to the scenery; but here in its entirety is the Thespian waggon at Dumbledowndeary.
Which Dumbledowndeary, I beg to remark, is thoroughly an out-of-the way place. One of our magnates expresses his opinion that it is left out—at all events, you can’t find it in—many maps of England, and it never rains or snows at the same time it does in other places. There is no mint. (I mean the herb, not the Hotel de la Monnaie) in Dumbledowndeary, no turnip-radishes, no salid-oil, and there are very few carrots. There is no lawyer; there was one some [-316-] time ago, but he made a most signal failure of it, and died. There is very little clergyman; for the incumbent couldn’t make the place out, so he spends his living of six hundred a year in Hastings, and the cure of souls is done in job-work by a succession of clerical nonentities, of whom very little indeed is seen, between service. There is never any cholera at Dumbledowndeary, and seldom any fever, and so little sickness and few accidents, that our doctor’s principal amputations are confined to the plants in his greenhouse, and he is fain to eke out his time by taking photographic portraits, for pure love of science, of the inhabitants, to their immense delight: mute inglorious Miltons coming out under the process and on the prepared paper, as speaking likenesses, and ‘Cromwells, guiltless of their country’s blood,’ all generally mild men with sandy whiskers, appearing beneath the influence of collodion and iodine, as the most truculent and black-bearded bravos. We have no crime, and no immorality (to speak of), and our only regret is, that more Londoners do not arrive at our natty railway station; wander in our green lanes and voiceful woods, fill their eyes with the delicious prospect of wood and water and meadow around them; taste our publicans’ neat wines, and avail themselves of their commodious stabling, and at last be so delighted with the place as to buy, build, or hire houses, and settle in Dumbledowndeary altogether. But I am afraid that those who know of and love this queer, pleasant, little spot, keep the secret to themselves, as those Indians do who are aware of the city of gold in Central America, and tell no stranger, lest the profane vulgar should step in and spoil it.
Our taste for the drama in Dumbledowndeary, though not often indulged in, is vast. We take trips to town sometimes, and go to the play; and mighty are the discussions that afterwards take place about the plays we have seen. We have settlers amongst us, hermits long since retired from the busy world, who can remember Siddons, the elder Kean, and Young. These 'shoulder their crutch and show how'—plays were acted. There was a dark man who lodged up the back lane last year, and was supposed to have been formerly a playactor. It was mooted that he should read Shakspeare in the schoolroom; and he said he would think about it; which I suppose he has been doing ever since, for no more came of the proposition. We have frequent bets of fours and sixes of alcoholic fluids, respecting the exact readings of quotations [-317-] from the dramatists; and reference being made to the authors’ works themselves, both parties are generally found to be in the wrong. Lastly, though we have no regular theatre (not even the smallest provincial one, within ten miles), we are visited, with tolerable regularity, once a year, by a band of those wandering histrionics called strollers. They omitted to visit us last year, and I grieved; thinking the dramatic element in Dumbledowndeary was on the decline; but a few days since, walking up street, the time being dinner time, and the object of my journey the fruitless one of procuring a ha’porth of mint, with a view to its conversion into sauce for lamb, I was greeted with the intelligence that the mummers were come.
The announcement was the more pleasant as it followed close on the heels of another class of amusements with which we have lately been favoured. We have seen a sight in Dumbledowndeary within the last fortnight not unfamiliar, I dare say, to my older and travelled readers, but which to the younger portion must be quite novel and surprising. What do you think of five wild and picturesque foreigners appearing in Dumbledowndeary, coming from no man knows where, and going no man knew whither; four of them leading two monstrous bears and two hideous wolves, with chains and muzzles, and the fifth man bearing a drum of uncouth make, which he smote continuously! Bears and wolves in England! They took us back to the time of King Egbert, and the Royal Bear, which lived in the Tower, and washed himself in the River Thames. The bears were brown beasts, with that pitiably half-human appearance, which bears have when on their hind-legs, of being distressed mariners in shaggy brown coats and trousers, much too loose for them: the name of one of them was Martin, and a most woe-begone Martin he was, with paws like very dirty driving-gloves, with the fingers coining through, a preposterous muzzle, and a general expression of the most infinite raggedness and wretchedness. He danced, did Martin, and went through the military exercise, and kissed his keeper at the word of command, with oh! such an unmistakable longing in his countenance to amplify the kiss into a hug, and a gnash, and a tear! Martin’s brother was a young bear—Martin the foundling, perhaps——who, whether the major part of his sorrows were yet to come, according to the axiom, or not, seemed to have quite enough of them now, and abandoned himself to [-318-] despair in the dust, at every convenient opportunity, till forced to assume the duopedal attitude by the cudgel of his master. As to the two wolves, they were not performing wolves, nor dancing wolves, nor learned wolves, by any means: they were simply wolves—lanky, brindled, savage-looking creatures, whose existence was embittered by an insufficiency of raw flesh, human or otherwise, and by the necessity of wearing a muzzle, and being tugged about by a chain. They viewed the performances of their ursine brethren with profound disgust and contempt: their masters, whom they unwillingly permitted to drag them along, with more disgust still, mingled with fear and loathing. Man delighted them not, nay, nor woman either; the one sole object on which their attention seemed fixed, and to which their desires were directed, lay in the amalgamated legs of the juvenile population of Dumbledowndeary. For those tender, fleshy, tearable, crunchable, howlable-for extremities did their fierce mouths water, their teeth gnash, and their eyeballs glare, and their bushy tails disport themselves, in a manner horrid to behold.
If the bears and the wolves, and their strange keepers (the man with the drum was a study in himself) were a source of amusement, imagine what a fertile source of recreation the strollers must have been. As soon as I heard that the mummers were come, I lost no time in repairing to the spot where they had. sot up their theatre. It was not ill-chosen. A green patch of land, with a natural amphitheatre of turf around it, then a path, then another patch, whereon Mr. Clewline, the sail-maker, spreads out his sails like gigantic table-cloths, and pitches them, or waterproofs them, or does something to them with a mysterious compound; and then the broad shining river with the yachts dancing on its bosom, like trim bits of nautical cabinet-making; the dusky brick-laden barges with heavy sails, that would seem to be impregnated with brick-dust too, so dusky red are they; the squat Prussian and Swedish barks waiting at the ballast wharf; the Gravesend steamer puffing and smoking along the channel on the Essex side; the unobtrusive, yet labouring ant-like little tugs, pilot fishes to great sharks and whales of Yankee liners, and Green’s Indiamen and Australian packet-ships, deep in the water with auriferous cargoes. There is one-legged Barker in his little boat, his oars as he feathers glancing in the wet spray and golden sun like priceless [-319-] gems, though they are but humble lancewood after all. There is Mr. Thumb, the pilot, shoving off to board and pilot, nolens volens, a homeward-bound ship; there is a neat little skiff pulling in from a yacht with ladies deep in novel reading and crochet work; there, opposite to me, in Essex, are flat marsh lands, and flatter meadows, and the white smoke of another train on another railway, and thereabouts, they tell me, lives the wicked contractor who sold the hay which the horses couldn’t eat, and which it was very lucky they did not eat, under the circumstances of cold lamb connected with the forage in question; and here, at my feet, is the grassy patch with the strollers’ booth upon it.
It is a very tumbledown edifice indeed, of old boards and canvas, which have evidently done service in countless grassy patches, to say nothing of fairs, all over England. There is an outer proscenium supported on a platform, about which there can be no mistake, for it simply consists of a few loose boards placed on the body of a van, which evidently serves for the conveyance of the paraphernalia of the company through the country. The proscenium itself, as a work of art, is abominable; as a curiosity it is laudable. All styles of decoration find representatives on its surface—the intensely Prae-Raphaelite prevailing; for the rules of perspective are wholly set aside, and the avidity of the artist for purity and brilliancy have caused him to throw aside all except the primary colours—red, blue, and yellow. There are two lateral doors, which mean nothing, inasmuch as they lead to nothing, and don’t open, and upon which knockers in the Louis Quatorze style are planted in bitter mockery. There is a door, left centre, which is of some signification, inasmuch as it is the box, pit, and gallery entrance, and pay-place. The summit of the proscenium is occupied by these useful domestic animals, the lion and unicorn at issue, as usual, about the possession of the crown, and more frequently, I am afraid, getting more brown bread than white bread or plum cake during the progress of their hostilities; there are a quantity of flowers painted, which, if novelty of design and strangeness of colour met with their reward, would infallibly carry off the gold medal at Chiswick and all other horticultural shows; and, finally, there are the names of the proprietors of the booth—Messrs. Hayes and Walton—glaring in red lead, and yellow ochre, and blue-verditer. The ‘walk up’ process to the booth is apparently effected by an inclined [-320-] plane, with a few battens nailed across it at irregular intervals—an Avernus of which the descent will be, .1 opine, more facile than the ascent.
There is a side door of ingress, however—the stage door, I presume—to the Theatre Royal Dumbledowndeary. Close by it is another van with a hood or tilt—a sort of mixture of the Thespian and Rommaney, or Gipsy, very picturesque. There is a ladder leading up to this van or waggon. Between its shafts there is at this moment, smoking his pipe, an individual who, by his smock frock, might be a waggoner; by his tight-fitting trousers, a stableman; by his squab oilskin hat, a sailor; by his broken nose and scarred complexion, a fighting man; but who, by his wavy black hair (yet bearing the brand of the fillet), his shaven jaw, his stage eye, stage lip, stage step, is unmistakably a Thespian, a stroller, a mummer, if you will. Can this be Hayes? Walton, perhaps? No, Walton should be short and stout, and, if I mistake not, bald, he can’t be both, may be one, is perchance neither. As I muse, another man who, in his blue frock coat, has a smack of the butcher, crosses him, bearing a pail of water, and enters the stage door. He puzzles me horribly! What can he want a pail of water for? Not for ablution—that would be too absurd; not for drinking—that were absurder still; perhaps for some dramatic purpose, for something in the play. Anon comes forth from the booth, a female form, closely draped in a dingy shawl that might have been worn as a toga in one of the comedies of Meander, it looks so old. I cannot see her face; but, as she climbs into the waggon, I catch a glimpse of a cotton stocking—pink? Well, not very pink; say lavendered by dirt; and a red leather brodequin. ‘Tis a dancer; and, as she disappears there protrudes for a second from under the tilt, a human face, and that face is white with chalk, red with. paint, and bald, with a cockscomb, and is as the face of a clown, and I get excited.
So do some eighty or hundred boys and girls, of various sizes and ages, who are standing, like me, on the turf or gambolling on the turf amphitheatre, some with the intention, as I have, of patronising Hayes and Walton, when their theatre opens. Others, oppressed by that :perpetual want of pence that vexeth public children, contenting themselves with seeing as much as they can of the outside of the show, hopeless of internal admittance. It is very pleasant to see all these happy poor children, not ragged, but in the decent, [-321-] homely, common clothes that country children wear; it is very good to hear this village murmur as
‘The mingling notes come soften’d from below.’
I cannot hear I
‘The swain responsive as the milkmaid sung;
swains don’t respond or milkmaids sing in these back parts. I cannot hear
‘The watchdog’s voice that bays the whispering wind;’
but I can hear
‘The playful children just let loose from school,’
the noisy geese gabbling o’er the pool, the sober herd ]owing to meet their young, and the loud laugh which speaks (not always, dear Goldsmith) the vacant mind.
Two sober homes feed quietly by the side of the tilted chariot, while the rest of the landscape is made up by a misanthropic donkey, which appears to have given up thistles altogether as gross and sensual luxuries, and browses contentedly on chalk and stunted thistles; and a big brown dog that seems to know everybody, and tumbles everybody, and makes a very fierce pretence of barking and biting, belying his fierceness all the time by the wagging of his tail and the leer on his honest countenance—a landscape of happiness and plenty, and quietude and the Queen’s peace.
Of Peace, say I?* [*A.D. 1855] As I watch the strollers’ booth, there comes across the field of the river a little black steamer, with a white funnel, towing a hulkish, outlandish bark, with her mainmast all gone to pieces, with an outlandish flag at her mizen, and floating proudly above it the English ensign. This is a Russian prize; and, as though looking through a camera, you suddenly drew a red slide between the lens and the eye, this field of peace becomes at once a field of war. See, transport No. 42 is just going down river; she is chock full of heavy guns and munitions of war; yonder little schooner, painted light-blue, a Fruiterer from the Azores, laden with peaceful oranges and lemons, has been chartered by Government for the conveyance of stores to the Black Sea; transport No. 19 is expected down shortly with artillery horses, and transport No. 70 with hussars and [-322-] lancers. I begin to remember that, within a few miles of my quiet, peaceful, little Dumbledowndeary, are the most famous arsenals and dockyards to he found in this mortal world —fields of the balls of death—laboratories of destructive missiles. But the waters curl and. are blue and sparkling, and the tides have their ebb and flow, whether their burdens be peaceful argosies or armed galleys; and the river-shores remember that they have seen the Danes in the Thames, and the Dutch in the Medway, and the mutiny at the Nore, and that they were none the less green and smiling.
Messrs Hayes and Walton do not trouble themselves about the war, save in so far as it affects the price of tallow candles and two-inch rope, or influences the minds of their audiences, leading them (H. and W.) to compose and. perform pieces of a war turn or of a military tendency—all to suit the popular appetite for the drama pugnacious. Thus, though the piece originally announced for this evening was the Corsican Brothers, or the Fatal Resemblance and the Murdered Twins; H. and W., finding Dumbledowndeary to be partially a down- to-sea-going place, including among its population coastguardsmen, bargemen, watermen, and fishermen—persons all supposed to have a lively interest in the progress of the war—changed the drama to the Russian War and. the Gallant Turk; or, Death, the Danube, and the Tartar Bride.
We have waited a considerable time—so considerable, indeed, that Mr. Sprouts the peripatetic fishmonger and purveyor of sundries in general, has driven his little truck, drawn by a placid little ass, to the brink of the amphitheatre, and is driving quite a brisk trade in cakes, nuts, apples, oranges, and ginger-beer. We almost feel inclined to ask for bills of the play.
By-and-by a little cheer directs my attention from the proscenium; and my spirits are raised to the highest pitch by the appearance on the platform of an Individual. He makes his appearance, curiously, much in the same manner as I have seen Mr. Calcraft make his appearance on a certain dreadful stage in front of one of Her Majesty’s gaols, where ho does the second tragedy business—-cautiously advancing to the front and curiously peering into and scanning the populace. But he wears garments far different from the doomster’s sables; having on a pair of gay boots, which I dare swear have been originally ankle-jacks, and are now covered. with a coat of red paint; a pair of ample calico trousers, a broad leathern belt [-323-] with a large brass buckle (pattern the Miller and his Men— size, Grindoff), a velveteen polka jacket with coarse gold lace sewn down all the seams, an imitation point-lace collar, and such a turban! a wondrous combination of a wide-awake hat with a dirty shawl twisted round it, and streamers of spangled gauze and a broken feather—a turban that would make any Cheltenham or Leamington spinster die of envy. This individual, after a cursory but evidently efficient survey of his auditory—having reckoned them all up, and divided the paying from the non-paying ones—disappears into the place from whence he came; soon, however, to re-appear with a long green drum, whose bruised parchments attest how long and often it has suffered the discipline, of the stick. This drum he discreetly proceeds to sling by a cord to the posts of the proscenium, and deliberately performs a solo upon it—a solo that has very little beginning and an elastic end—being capable of prolongation ad infinitum ; or of being cut sharp off when necessity requires.
To him, presently, a man in private clothes, with a trombone. Next, a man with a horn, and a troublesome cough, which makes of his horn-blowing one continual catarrh. Next, a young lady in long black ringlets and long white calico; next, a ditto ditto in red hair braided and short pink calico spangled trousers to match, and blue boots; next a diminutive child-woman or woman-child, I scarcely know which, who, with her dark eyes and hair and slight figure, would be pretty but for a preternaturally large and concave forehead—a forehead that seems to argue wrong and mismanagement somewhere beyond the inevitable malformation of nature; next a magnificent creation full six feet high, with flowing black hair (or wig), a plumed hat, an imitation point-lace collar, a half modern military, half Elizabethan doublet, a fierce sword, trunk hose, buckskin (imitation) tights, and a pair of jack-boots—large, high in the thigh, acute in the peaks, lustrous with copal varnish or grease—a monarch pair of boots—-such boots that had you dared displace them and they had been Bombastes’, he would have had your life in a twinkling in King Artaxomines’ time. These boots seem to oppress their wearer with a deep and awful sense of the responsibility they involve. They are perchance the only pair of jack-boots in the company, and to wear them, perhaps, is as precious a favour as it was of old to wear the king’s robe of honour. This booted man moves with an [-324-] alterrnate short step and stride. His eyes are bent downward, but not in humility—they are looking at his boots. He has no eyes, no ears, no thought apparently for anything beyond those nether casings. I look at him with fear and loathing, mingled with patriotic hatred; for I seem to recognise in him the Emperor of Russia, and already suspect him of nefarious designs connected with the Tartar Bride.
Two more personages appear in succession, and make up the effective strength of the company. There is an old man with feeble legs and a flaxen wig, ill-concealing a stubbly gray head of hair. He wears a gray jerkin with hanging sleeves; beneath which there is a suspicion of Dirk Hatteraick’s pink striped shirt, and hose to match. Besides being the old man of the troupe, physically and dramatically, he is one of the orchestra likewise, and carries a battered old flageolet, of which the music comes out all at wrong holes and produces dismal discord. The last histrionic who makes himself manifest, is a little man, who, by his particularly bandy legs, frill, cockscomb and painted face is of the clown, clowny—the clown I caught a glimpse of in the waggon; and who has a habit of rubbing his face continually with a blue pocket-handkerchief rolled up into a very small ball, which, taking his painted face into consideration, is, at the least, inconvenient. The company range themselves on the platform, and there is dead silence in the amphitheatre. You might hear a piece of sweetstuff drop.
I very soon find that the clown does not belie his appearance; for he advances to the front with the man in the wonderful turban, and is immediately addressed by him as Mr. Merriman and desired to be funny.
Upon which he at once stands upon his head. Unfortunately, however, the boards upon which he stands being loose, it occurs to one of them to stand upon its head likewise, upon the fulcrum and lever principle, and Mr. Merriman is very nearly precipitated down the inclined plane, and into the midst of his admirers. He as suddenly recovers himself, and makes a joke which is none the less happy for not having the remotest connection with the event which has just occurred.
‘Merriman,’ says the turbaned Turk, in a jaunty, off-hand manner, ‘have you ever travelled?’
All over the world,’ answers Merriman.
‘Have you been in 'Merrikar ?’
[-325-] ‘No, not there; I said all over the world, mind.’
‘Well, in Afrikar, Europe, ‘Stralia?’
‘No, no, I said the world.’
‘Well, where ‘ave you been?’
Mr. Merriman scratches his head as if to refresh his geographical reminiacences, and after a pause, answers, ‘ I’ve been in Dumbledowndeary.’
This is taken as a great joke, and is roared at accordingly.
‘Merriman,’ asks he of the turban again, ‘what is nonsense?’
‘Why,’ to him replies the jocose, ‘to eat vinegar with a fork ‘s nonsense. To try to stop the tide with a teaspoon's nonsense. And to try to stop a woman’s tongue when she’s a talking's nonsense.’
This is received as even a more exquisite witticism than the first, and is greeted with much haw-hawing and clapping of hands by the men, and much blushing and giggling by the women. The little folks laugh, as it is their happy privilege to laugh at everything at which they don’t cry.
Merriman is proceeding to make another joke, when the Turk stops him.
‘You had better, Merriman,’ he says, ‘hinform the company that this hevening we shall have the honour of pfromming the Rooshian War and the Gallant Turk; or, Death, the Danube, and the Tartar Bride.’
Merriman makes the announcement with many deliberate mistakes and transpositions of the original text.
‘As the pfrommences will be raather long,’ the Turk adds by way of rider, ‘we will fust ‘ave a shut dence on the outside, and the pfrommences will then kmence in the hinteriar. Hadmission sixpence to boxes, and thruppence to gallery.’
The ‘shut dence’ then takes place. But as the space is extremely limited on which its evolutions are performed, the dancers literally walk through the figures. The clown moves his legs a great deal, but his body not much, and is excessively active within a confined space. The old man, whose legs move naturally of themselves through feebleness, is paralytically nimble, and the young lady in white calico is as energetic as she can be under the circumstances. I look at her and the little child-woman with a sort of nervous interest, and observe that they cling to each other, and whisper together, and make much of one another. I imagine some relationship between them, or at least some strong sympathy [-326-] and bond of love and suffering, often stronger, God knows, than ties of blood. As for the Emperor of Russia, he feels it plainly beneath the dignity of his boots to dance, and contents himself with an occasional grim bow to his partner.
There is rather a hitch at the end of the ‘ shut dence,’ and to say the truth, rather a long wait before the ‘pfrommences kmence in the hinteriar.' Perhaps the manager is waiting for the approach of dusk, for it is yet broad daylight; perhaps (and the noise of some hidden hammers would seem to bear out this view of the question) the arrangements are not yet completed. Meanwhile the solo on the drum is repeated, and an overture by the whole of the orchestra (any tune or time) and then there is another ‘shut dence,’ performed however without the co-operation of the Emperor, who, probably disgusted at the levity of the proceedings, disappears altogether.
Just then I become sensible of the presence of young Harry Bett, who is commonly known as the Young Squire, and has made up his mind to drain the cup of delirious excitement known as Life in Dumbledowndeary to the very dregs. Young Harry has a coat with many pockets, and trousers fitting him much tighter than his skin, and, if the constant perusal of a betting-book made a reading man, would take a double first class at any university. He bets freely, does young Harry, upon fights, races, hop-harvests, trotting mares, cribbage, boating, ratting, cricketing, and general events. He has brought with him a gallon of beer, in a flat stone bottle, and a quantity of birds’-eye tobacco and short pipes. He is quite an enthusiastic admirer of the minor drama, though in rather a violent and turbulent phase.
He startles me at first somewhat by addressing the mighty Emperor of Russia himself by his Christian name, and by making derisive inquiries after his state of health. He alarms me by gallantly offering beer to the lady in white; by breaking into the very marrow of Mr. Merriman’s witticisms with adze-headed jokes of his own, and by pouring forth to me the details of an irruption he had made into the dressing-room of the company—which was the stage of the theatre, indeed— and, according to his account, presented an exactly similar appearance to the barn made famous in Hogarth’s print. But, when I find that his free-and-easiness is appreciated to the fullest extent; that Hayes evidently thinks him a bold fellow, and Walton a dashing spirit, I begin to think that I have [-327-] been living behind the time somehow, and that life in Dumbledowndeary is the life for a rackety blade, after all.
Louder beats the drum, and louder still brays the music through time inspiriting strains of 'Pop goes the Weasel,' which dashing melody young Harry has called for, and is now supposed to be heard for the first time in Dumbledowndeary. Hey for dissipation! Let us throw aside the conventionalities of society and be gay and rackety with a vengeance. We spurn the inclined plane, with its servile battens nailed across, and enter the Theatre Royal by the side-door, when we immediately assume nine points of the law—possession of a front seat—supposed to form part of the boxes; young Harry sternly tendering the gallery price, threepence, which after some demur is accepted by the Tartar Bride, who appears to be Argus-eyed; for though taking money at the gallery door outside, she spies us in the boxes, and is literally down upon us in a twinkling.
During an interval of from ten to fifteen minutes, some twenty score of our population come tumbling into the theatre. There is nothing but a coarse canvas covering, supported on poles, overhead, rough deal planks on tressels to sit upon, and the bare grass beneath. The theatre is—well, not brilliantly, but—lighted with somebody’s patent gas, which appears to be a remarkably pitchy compound, flaring away in tin cressets. We make ourselves very comfortable, however, with the gallon of beer (which young Harry liberally dispenses to his neighbours), and the tobacco-pipes, while above us rise tiers of seats occupied by brick-makers, ballast-heavers, sand-men, farm-labourers, nursery-maids, decent young women (and in that respect my Dumbledowndeary is a very coronal of jewels of pure water), bargemen, boatmen, preventive men, children, and dogs. You would be puzzled to find a more motley assemblage at any other theatre in England, major or minor. The aristocracy of the place, such as the butcher, the farmers, and two or three worthy landlords, do not hold aloof from the entertainment altogether, but they are bashful, and will drop in by-and-by.
All in, and all ready to begin —in front, at least—though by a continued hammering behind all does not seem quite ready there. I see Mr. Merriman and the Turk in anxious confabulation over an old hat; which, from its tinkling when moved, I conjecture must contain coppers. Those coppers must be the receipts, and Merriman and the Moslem must be [-328-] Hayes and Walton. The convex-headed young lady (who is otherwise attired as a coryphée), laboriously brings down the much-enduring drum; and, placing it before that part of the proscenium where the orchestra should be but is not, grasps the sticks in her tiny little hands and begins battering away at it afresh. I begin to grow very sick of this very long wait, likewise of the continuous strophes of 'Pop goes the Weasel,' which the brass band drones forth; though I am somewhat diverted by the touching resignation with which the flageolet allows the trombone to wipe the mouthpiece of his instrument on his sleeve, and also by a survey of the coat and hat of the trombone himself. That musician is one diamond of grease, and his clothes form perfect facets of oleaginous matter. Young Harry, however, does not find the time hang heavily. He hands the foaming can about—at least its substitute, a broken mug—he converses familiarly with the ladies of the company who sit familiarly on the front benches till it be their turn to ascend the stage, and he holds earnest parley with some members of the upper gallery who are beguiling the time by pelting us with nut-shells, and broken pipes. Two or three 'hallos!' and ‘now thens!’ accompanied by a strong recommendation to ‘cheese it’ (i. e., act of cessation), cause these trifling annoyances to cease. Meanwhile, the theatre is getting fuller. I need not say that the free-list is entirely suspended—no! riot entirely: there is one exception—the policeman is admitted free. He surveys the assemblage municipally, the proscenium critically, the corps dramatique favourably. The performances have not long commenced before I observe him applauding the Emperor of Russia enthusiastically.
With that potentate, who is sitting majestic in his boots immediately before me, and condescendingly partaking of beer with the young Squire, I enter into brief conference. I am somewhat disappointed to find that he is merely a Russian field-marshal after all, but I still revere his boots. He tells nine that I was right in my surmise respecting Hayes and Walton. They are the parties, he says, and very nice parties they are. He apologises for the thinness of the company, saving that it is not yet complete, but that it was very strong at Stepney Fair, where they were doing twenty houses a day. The lady in white is Mrs. Hayes. He thinks Dumbledowndeary a poor place. He anticipates but mediocre business, as the thing isn’t known yet, and they havn’t as much as sent a [-329-] drum about. Do I think that the tradesmen would give a bespeak? If so, they would have some bills printed, and— Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle! A bell, which has been ringing about once in every half minute as a species of sop to the public impatience, now rings to some purpose, and. the curtain rises.
The Russian War! The Tartar Bride! Death and the Danube! The Gallant Turk! Yes; let me see. Azarack (this Turk) is in love with Selima, pronounced Syllabub (lady in white), daughter to Chum-Chum, a Tartar peasant (the old man, and discovered to be a rank Irishman), but is coveted by a Russian Field-Marshal (Boots). There is an under-plot, treating of the loves of Hilda Chum-Chum’s second daughter (Convex) and Wingo, a Wallachian peasant (played by a personage in a costume novel to me, but, if I mistake not, Mr. Merriman in buff boots). The drama is in three acts, averaging twelve minutes each. The scene varies between a woodman’s hut, a modern drawing-room, and a dungeon, supposed to be the palace or castle of Field-Marshal Boots. I think I cannot better sum up the plot than by stating that in act the first there is one murder, two fights, Wingo up the chimney (which catches fire), one imprisonment of Chum-Chum, and three appeals (on her knees) by Selima to Boots, beginning with ‘Ear me.’ Act the second: three fights, two abductions of Sehima, one elopement by Hilda, a torture undergone by Chum-Chum, a comic song by Wingo, and innumerable soliloquies by Boots. Act the third: three fights (one fatal), one ghost, one general reconciliation, and a dance by the characters, ending with the Triumph of the Turks, and Ruin of the Russians. I need not say that Boots is at last totally discomfited and brought to signal shame, and is dragged off, dead, by the toes of those very jack-boots he has done so much, by his ruffianly conduct, to disgrace. I may add that all these events appear to take place in that part of Turkey which borders on Tartary, close to the Danube, where it falls into the Baltic Sea; that the dialogue is all carried on in the purest vernacular, including such words as ‘old Bloke,’ ‘blow me,’ ‘pickles,’ ‘go to Bermondsey,’ and the like; that it is elevated, however, by sundry scraps from ‘Othello,’ ‘Manfred,’ ‘Venice Preserved,’ and ‘Richard the ‘Third,’ sprinkled hither and thither like plums in a pudding, and spouted by Boots; and, to wind up, that there is not one single H in a right place among the whole company.
[-330-] I must confess that, in my vagabond way, I find it all very pleasant notwithstanding; and that I am charmed with the audience, so charmed with the play, acted out upon the fresh green turf. So I sit through the laughable drama of ‘A Day Well Spent’ (not to speak of a variety of intermediate singing and dancing) with great content, and, at parting, promise the ex-Emperor (in private life at once a humble and familiar man) that I will interest myself with the tradesmen for a bespeak next Monday.