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AN EVENING AT A WHITECHAPEL "GAFF."
Happening to pass that way in the morning, I was just in time
to witness a gentleman belonging to the establishment (a lank, dirty-bearded
gentleman he was, who smoked a dirty pipe, and wore the sleeves of his dirty
shirt rolled above his dirty elbows) engaged in affixing to a great board that
hung against the "gaff" door an announcement of a new piece to be
produced that evening.
It was an announcement calculated to arrest the attention of the passers-by, being inscribed in bold and flourishing red and blue letters on orange-coloured cardboard, and that it was the work of the gentleman who published it was evident from the fact that his face and hands and the sides of his trousers were smudged with the same brilliant colours. " Astounding !" (in blue) ; "Startling!!" (in red) ; " Don't miss it !!!" (in red and blue artistically blended) were the head-lines of the placard, which further went on to inform the public that that evening "your old favourites, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce, would appear, with the rest of the talented company, in a new and original equestrian spectacle entitled "Gentleman Jack, or the Game of High Toby," with real horses and a real carriage. By the time the person with the short pipe had finished tacking up the placard, and had added a few additional touches by means of a small paint-brush to the most telling lines, several young men and women of the neighbourhood had congregated to
and discuss its contents. Their criticism was highly favourable. They
prognosticated that it would be a "clippin'" piece, not only on
account of the real horses, but because Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce was a "
reg'lar stunner" in the highwayman line. The majority of the critics vowed
" strike them blind if they wouldn't come and see it, while
the rest promised themselves the treat provided they could raise the ha'pence.
As for me, I made up my mind on the spot.
"First performance at half-past six," the bill stated, and, desirous of obtaining a front seat, I was at the "gaff" door at least twenty minutes earlier. Not early enough, however. The "pit" and " box " passages leading to the inner doors were already densely thronged, and that by individuals who would not submit to elbowing. I did not attempt it. No one is so tenacious of his rights to recognition as a fellow-man as the budding costermonger aged fifteen or sixteen, and no one is readier to uphold his dignity than the female of his bosom, who, although a year or two younger, comes of a stock that will stand no nonsense. The mob pressing about the gaff were nearly all of the sort indicated the exception being a few old men and a few children.
In a few minutes the doors were opened, and we were admitted-the box customers on payment of twopence, and the pit customers at the rate of a penny each. It was not a commodious building, nor particularly handsome, the only attempt at embellishment appearing at the stage end, where for the space of a few feet the plaster wall was covered with ordinary wal1 paper of a grape-vine pattern, and further ornamented by coloured and spangled portraits of Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce in her celebrated characters of "Cupid" and "Lady Godiva." There were many copies of these portraits, and they were ticketed for sale-the former at sixpence, and the latter at nine-pence; though why the difference is hard to say, since in the matter of spangling, or, indeed, any other kind of covering, the [-14-] cost of producing Lady Godiva must have been even less than that incurred in perfecting the print of the "God of Love. The stage itself was a mere platform of rough boards; the seats in the pit were of the same material. The boards that were the box seats, however, were planed, and, further to insure the comfort of the gentility patronizing that part of the theatre, there were written bills posted up to the effect that "smoking and spitting was objected to on account of fire," but as the audience treated this vague and contradictory notice with well-merited contempt, I was not sorry that I could advance no closer than the back seat of all.
The performance was commenced by a black man, - a brawny ruffian, naked to the waist, and with broad rings of red round his ankles and wrists, illustrative, as presently appeared, of his suffering from the chafing of the manacles be had worn in a state of slavery. It was a very long descriptive ballad, set to the not over lively tune of "Mary Blane," and the audience-who bad possibly heard it on a few previous occasions - at the termination of the fifth verse expressed a desire that the singer should "cut it short," and on the oppressed negro taking no notice of the intimation, but beginning the sixth verse in all coolness, somebody threw a largish crust of bread at him, which narrowly missed his head, and somebody else threw a fish-bone with more certain aim, so that it was lodged in the unfortunate African's wool, and there instantly followed an explosion of mirth that by no means tended to solace the indignity cast on him. He glared to the right and the left of him, and, apparently marking the delinquent in the pit, jumped off the stage and rushed towards him. What then transpired I cannot say, not being in a position to see, but after a minute of uproar, and cursing, and swearing, and yelling laughter, the black man scrambled on to the stage again with a good deal of the blacking rubbed off his face, and with his wool wig in his hand, exposing his proper short crop of carroty hair. "Now [-15-] looky' here !" exclaimed he, with a desperate, but not entirely successful, effort to deliver himself in a calm and impassionate manner, " Looky' here, if you thinks by a-choking me off to get at the new piece a bit the sooner you're just wrong. When I've done a-singin' my song then the piece'll be ready and not a oat before, and the more you hinterrups why the longer you'll be kept a-waitin', that's all." And having expressed these manly and British sentiments in genuine Whitechapel English, he readjusted his wig and became once more an afflicted African bewailing how
"Cruel massa stole him wife and lily piccaninny,"
and continued without further interruption till he had
accomplished the eighth verse, and was about to commence the ninth when some one
behind the scenes audibly whispered, "Off, Ginger," and off he went,
and the star of the evening, Gentleman Jack, came in with a bound and a bow that
elicited even a louder roar from the company than had greeted the lodgment of
the fish-bone in Ginger's wool.
It was Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce fully equipped for the "High Toby game." She wore buckskin shorts, and boots of brilliant polish knee high and higher, and with spurs to them; her coat was of green velvet slashed with crimson, with a neat little breast pocket, from which peeped a cambric handkerchief; her raven curls hung about her shoulders, and on her head was a three-cornered hat, crimson edged with gold ; under her arm she carried a riding whip, and in each hand a pistol of large size. By way of thanking her friends in the boxes and pit for their generous greeting (it is against the law for the actors to utter so much as a single word during the performance of a "gaff" piece), she uttered a saucy laugh (she could not have been more than forty-five), and, cocking her firearms, let fly at them point blank as it seemed; however, the whistling and stamping of feet that immediately ensued showed that nobody was wounded - indeed, that the audience rather enjoyed being shot at than otherwise.
[-16-] Being debarred the use of speech, the bold highwayman was driven to the exercise of his vocal talent, in order to explain his own game in general, and the High Toby game in particular. The highwayman sang a song all about another highwayman, who, "mounted on his mare, with his barkers at his belt," boldly faced an old miller "jogging home from market," and appropriated his bag of gold after blowing his brains out. Also how the same thief and murderer was pursued by Bow Street runners - one a blue-eyed man. But the "High Toby" boy, turning about in his saddle, took aim with his pistol at the runner and fired, and-
"His eyes of a colour a minute ago,
Were now one of 'em red and the t'other one blue"
a jocular result which the company assembled seemed keenly to
appreciate. It terminated the song, and besides shouts of "Hencore !"
and stamping and whistling, there was a cry of "Chuck em on!" followed
by a casting of halfpence on to the stage. Not many, however; not more than
amounted to sixpence; but the dashing highwayman seemed very grateful, and
looked after the rolling coins with an avidity that showed how ill he could
afford to forego the smallest of them.
Presently in rushed another highwayman, seedier than Gentleman Jack. This was Mr. Douglas Fitzbruce, and, from his being pitted with small-pox, and having a slight squint in his right eye, I at once recognized in him the gentleman who had nailed up the outside poster in the morning. He came in for some applause, but chiefly from the female portion of the audience, the males appearing ·to entertain feelings of envy and jealousy against him as the lawful proprietor of the lady in the long boots.
The second highwayman, who was greeted as Tom King, seemed in a tremendous hurry about something. He slapped his breast energetically, and pointed repeatedly and determinedly in a certain direction; on which Gentleman Jack started vio-[-17-]lently and commenced to load his pistols to their muzzles with powder and ball, the other highwayman following his example. Then Gentleman Jack straddled his legs and bobbed up and down, working his arms as though he held reins in his bands, as an intimation to the second highwayman that he wanted his horse ; then, waving their hats in the most daring and gallant manner, they both rushed off.
After a lapse of about a minute a hurricane of applause welcomed the approaching sound of horse's hoofs, and presently appeared Gentleman Jack, with a bit of black crape concealing the upper part of his features, on horseback. It was a remarkably docile horse, not to say a subdued one, and hung its big head down to its thick and heavy legs in a decidedly sleepy manner. Properly, I believe, he should have showed his high mettle by rearing and plunging a bit when Gentleman jack spurred him, but though the bold rider sawed at its bit until the animal's toothless gums were visible, and spurred it until the rowels were completely clogged with the yielding hair of its flanks, it only wagged its tail languidly and snorted. Again was the sound of approaching hoofs heard, this time accompanied by the rumbling of wheels, and Gentleman Jack, rising in his stirrups, detected the sound and gave a low whistle, which was responded to, and Tom King promptly made his appearance with black crape on his face, and a naked sword in one hand and a horse pistol in the other. Then the highwaymen clasped hands, and looked upwards, as though calling on the gods to witness the compact they had made to stick to each other till the death.
Now all was ready for the robbery, but it couldn't come off for some unknown reason. The rumbling of wheels had stopped suddenly, though the sound of hoofs had not, and there were heard as well strange muffled "clucking" noises, as of men urging on a horse disinclined to move. This rather spoilt the scene, for the gentlemen of the audience [-18-] having a practical knowledge of donkeys and horses, and of the obstinate fits that occasionally seize on those animals, instantly guessed the difficulty, and gleefully shouted suggestions as to the proper mode of treatment to be applied to the quadruped that was stopping the play. "Hit him on the ock !" " Twist the warmint's tail!" " Shove him up behind!" Which - if either - of these suggestions was adopted I cannot say, but suddenly the vehicle that contained the highwaymen's booty bolted on to the stage, amid the uproarious plaudits of the spectators.
It was not a very magnificent turn-out, being nothing else indeed than an old street cab drawn by a vicious brother of the animal Gentleman Jack rode, and made to look slightly like a chariot by the driver's seat being set round with coloured chintz, hammer-cloth wise. A driver in a cocked hat sat on the box, and a footman with a cocked hat stood on the springs behind ; but neither retained his place long, for from his saddle Gentleman Jack shot the coachman dead as a doornail, while Tom King, rushing on the footman with his naked sword, hacked him down in a twinkling, to the great delight of the young costermongers.
Then we came at the pith of the play. Loud shrieks were heard proceeding from the interior of the chariot, and simultaneously a gray-haired old man put his head out at one window and a lovely damsel put her head out at the other. The gray-haired old mart clasped his hands, and the lovely damsel clasped her hands. With a gesture of joy, Gentleman Jack sprang from his horse, and, rushing to the carriage on the damsel side, flung open the door and caught the fair and fainting form that at that identical moment was tumbling out. Tom King rushed to the gray-haired side, and, flinging open the door, dragged out the old man, and, kneeling on his chest, pointed the naked sword at his throat and the muzzle of his pistol at his temple. At which stirring, though somewhat [-19-] perplexing spectacle, the audience cheered more vociferously than ever, and "chucked on" ninepence at the very least. The most inexplicable part of the business (to me, that is, though nobody else appeared so to regard it) was that the lovely damsel seemed well acquainted with Gentleman Jack, for as soon as that gallant had restored her to consciousness by the administration of kisses and something out of a bottle, she flung her arms round his neck with a cry that caused the gray-haired old man to wriggle visibly in spite of the threatening sword-blade and enormous weight pressing on him. Insignificant as the movement appeared to me, it was enough furnish a clue to the keener perceptions of my fellow-occupants of the box.
"Now don't you twig, Ben ?" remarked a young woman, with no bonnet and largish coral earrings, to her young man, who bad just before expressed his inability "to make eds or tails on it; " "Now don't you twig ? It's the old cove wots runnin' away with the gal wot Gentleman Jack used to keep the company of afore he took to High Toby. He's a takin' of her off to marry her or somethink, and Gentleman Jack is jest in time to prewent him."
If this was not a strictly correct guess as to the state of the case, it was not far wrong, as the progress of the dumb-show drama proved. Rising from the prostrate old man, but still keeping the pistol pointed at his head, Tom King approached the chariot and hauled out a box labelled "plate," and several canvas bags, each branded "£5000". As each bag was brought out the old man writhed and uttered a deep groan; but Tom's eyes glared on him, and he dare not rise. At last all the property was removed from the carriage and placed in a heap, and then Gentleman Jack led the beautiful damsel forward, her hand in his, and the pair stood by the moneybags and the plate-chest. The old man rolled his head from side to side and wrung his hands. Tom King whispered in his ear, and the old man shook his head fiercely and very [-20-] decidedly. Evidently they wanted him to do something he had no mind to. The fair damsel went on her knees and clasped her hands, and Torn King glared and pressed the muzzle of his pistol to the old man's head. The old man was melted and shed tears. Seeing which, Tom King was melted too, and shed tears, as did Gentleman Jack and the damsel. Then the old man staggered to his feet, and, spreading his hands over the plate-box and the money-bags and Gentleman Jack and the damsel, as they knelt together with their hands lovingly locked, blessed the lot; and that was the end of the play.