Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The old player's story

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
The old player’s story (A plea for the Dramatic College)
by Archibald Stewart Harrison


I must confess to a curiosity about poor people. Their ways, manners, habits, modes of existence and thought, have for me a charm that I do not find in the lives of their richer fellows. Their struggles against hunger and poverty, more enduring—sometimes more noble—than those of heroes on the battlefield, are to me as interesting a portion of human experience as the world presents.

It is no wonder, then, that I find myself in strange places sometimes. Now in a dirty cottage, now in a cellar still dirtier, now in a workshop, now in a garret. I find it interesting; I like to see these bees building up their little cells, living their little lives, and sinking little by little under the weight of a heavy burden.

Feeling this, I embraced with all eagerness the offer of an intelligent master of a workhouse to visit the establishment under his charge. He received me at the door, and led me through the various rooms. The occupants were nearly all old men, a few—very few—were younger and sickly-looking, all dressed alike in the grey suit, and looking all alike, in a sullen and hopeless expression that is very saddening to see on human faces. Of course I asked questions by the score, and was answered. Few of them liked to discuss the cause of their ending their days in that place. Some few said it was misfortune; some said—poor old fellows—that their children had died; some did not know exactly what it was had brought them there. They had very little bread where they were, they said; and the master smiled.

“You’ve enough to eat, Brown?”

“Yes. I don’t starve, but somehow I never feel full, always waiting for next meal; ’taint pleasant sort of feeling that; still I can’t help it, I am here, and shall be till I goes.”

The last word was half regretful, half expectant in its tone.

“Haven’t a bit of ’bacca with you, sir? I miss that as much as anything.”

I gave old Brown an Havannah, and left him happy; it is astonishing how little is required to make an old man of seventy in a workhouse, happy.

“He is a fair sample of your birds, I suppose,” said I.

“Yes, about the average, perhaps a little better than the general run. I’ve rather a curious specimen of the pauper human here somewhere. I like the old fellow, his is a sad case. Where’s Gowling?”

“He is in the garden, sir,” said one. “Ye can just see him out of the window here, sir, sitting under the lime tree, there, sir;” and a finger a little, just a little dirty, was stretched out to indicate the place of Gowling.

I of course looked, and saw a man I should have judged to be about sixty-five sitting under the tree. He was a good deal bent, and seemed lost in thought from the wrinkles on his face, or it might have been the vacant smile I had seen on other faces, though I could hardly tell what it was at that distance.

On my going up to him, the old man rose, and took off his cap with a grace and ease of manner, and withal a certain dignity, that made me instantly raise my hat in that graceful fashion peculiar to the natives of this polite little island.

“Would you like to sit down, sir?” said he; and he looked at me.

“Thank you,” I stammered, and sat down. I had not recovered from my astonishment—the pauper, with his cap that never could have cost sixpence, exhibiting with it the manners and ease of a gentleman. I was astonished, and sat silent.

“You’ve been through the house?”

“O yes—I went through this afternoon.”

“Curious place. Curious people in it.”

“Yes; but they are all much alike in the main features, dress of course—but manner, expression of face. Most of them are from the same class, ‘the labouring poor,’ as one of our poets has emphatically called them. You find them not very congenial companions?”

“Not very. They are kind, or mean to be; and would be respectful, if there were not adverse influences to the existence of such a feeling. The chaplain is rather against me.”

“You smoke, Mr. Gowling?”

“I do, when I can,” and the old man laughed—a laugh that was at once bitter and pitiful.

I offered him my cigar-case. He made his selection, and struck a light with the fusee. I lit my own with one, and was enjoying the first few whiffs, when I presently noticed my companion’s cigar had no light—it had gone out. I looked in the fusee-box—it was empty.

“O, never mind. I’ll keep it till another time.”

I handed him mine.

“No, sir—it’s no use to me. My lungs are not what they used to be, and I can’t light it unless you draw at the same time. I can light it then.”

I drew my breath till the end of my cigar was almost a flame, and then the old man, with his feeble breath, kindled his own. I noticed him more, as our faces were close together. His brow, rather high and rounded, was crossed in every direction by wrinkles; the eyes were dark, the eyebrows almost gone; while the cheeks more resembled parchment than aught else. The face close shaven, and a few locks of thin grey hair just showed under the cap.

“Well,” said he, after some few puffs at his cigar, “what do you think of me?”

I was blushing again. I really thought he had been too much occupied with his cigar to observe how much I noticed him.

“I scarcely know. It is so unusual to find one having your education in such a place as this, that I am sure I hardly know what to think of your being here.”

“You talk of my education. What do you suppose I am?”

“I was going to say an actor, but that—”

“You’re right; I am an actor. I am,” he sighed, “no—I was.”

“You really interest me very much. I should be glad, very glad—should take it as a favour, if you would tell me the—the—indeed, the story of your life. I am very much interested.”

“My dear sir—”

Now I did feel that it was not usual for men in the dress of paupers to address the friends of the master as “my dear sir.”

“My dear sir, I shall be very happy if I can amuse you for a little while—I fear it’s no use beginning before tea. I expect the bell to ring directly. Ah, there it is. Will you come in and see the carnivora fed, as they used to say when I was young?”

I went in with him, arm in arm—how the paupers did stare to see the old fellow hanging on my arm!—and then I saw them sitting down at a long table—the little wedge of bread and the smaller one of cheese were eaten carefully to spread out the flavour over a longer time. I noticed my companion had a cup of tea brought him, which was a favour accorded to but few: half an hour and it was over, and we came out again into the garden and sat down once more. He seemed revived.

“I like my tea. You see we are not allowed many stimulants here, and I only get this every day by the order of the doctor, a young fellow I used to know many years ago. I was playing Othello at the time in Bradford, and an accident having happened to one of the shifters, he was called in. He set his leg—it was broken—and helped him with money afterwards, I know, and I took a liking to him. He was just beginning to practise then, and thought it a fine thing to know an actor. He orders me tea now,” and the old man was silent.

“Try another cigar, Mr. Gowling, and you’ll be better,” and he did. It really was a pleasure to see him slowly and weakly draw in the smoke, and then as slowly and weakly let it curl out of his scarcely opened lips with an air of regret at its departure. He smoked on in silence for some time, and I let him without interruption.

“I said I would tell you my story. Well, to begin. I was born in this town of Burnton something less than sixty years ago. My father was a small tradesman, and sent me to the best school he could afford till I was a little over thirteen. He was rather proud of me, poor old father. I used to recite on the public days in the school, and repeat Latin and Greek orations, of which the meaning was not a little obscure even to me; what it must have been to my hearers I don’t know. My father took me away from school to the shop. He was a tailor. I don’t think any boy with a grain of life in him would choose to be a tailor as a matter of taste. As for me, it worried me to death to sit hour after hour, stitch, stitch, stitch, and I used to beguile the time by reciting and reading to the few men my father employed, and they did my share of work in return for the amusement it afforded them. At the age of fifteen I took part in some private theatricals in the town, and found the bustle of preparation much more pleasant than the dull shop-work. They went off well, and when next the players came to the town I went to the manager and asked him to take me. He laughed, for I was fit for nothing. Of course I was too big for a page, and too little for a man-at-arms, too young for a first, second, or even third lover, and too old for any accidental boy parts. I was disappointed, but I soon had to leave the then detested shop. My father was rather of a serious turn. He heard of my going to the manager, and locked me up, then about sixteen, and fed me on bread and water. This was rather too bad, so I took French leave, and when the bread and water came one morning, there was no one to eat it. I was pleased to find myself with a pair of socks and a clean shirt wrapt up in a handkerchief about ‘to face the world,’ and ‘try to wring the hard held honours from stern fortune’s hand.’ Still I was young then. I need scarcely tell you that sitting here I often regretted that fine May morning’s work that took me from home.

“I went to one town after another, and at each sought out the manager of the theatre, and tried hard to get in as anything. I was no use, my voice was not yet set or certain. ‘Why, young sir,’ said one to me, ‘you’re as slim as a girl, and if you were to make love in the tone you’ve been talking to me in, the people would insist that I had made a girl play the lover’s part. I’d take you, but you are no use to me at all—two years hence you can come again, then I may talk to you.’

“I felt it was true, but still wanted to be in a theatre, so I entered a travelling circus company as holder and ring raker. I kept at it for eighteen months, and then the manager joined another in the regular acting line. Now was my chance. They wanted a lover, and wanted him to ride; their first lover could no more sit a horse than a sack could; the first lady saw him once, and said she should die with laughing if he came on, so I offered. I did well, and thought I was on the road to fortune; I felt that Kemble and the rest of the great actors were only the same men as I was, with better chances. That is more than forty years ago though. I’m wiser now.

“After this success I became first gentleman in that company, and remained so for some years. The manager took the leading parts, so I had no chance. I changed my name, first as Gowling did not look well in a bill, and next because I did not want to hurt my poor old father’s feelings more than I could help—I took the name of Alphonsus Montague. It looked well on the bills, I used to think at one time. Somebody, I forget who, says, “What’s in a name?” I know there is a good deal in a name when it’s on the play-bills; and the public being judge, Alphonsus Montague was better than James Gowling, for it drew better houses.

“In the company there was a girl who took second lady. I don’t say I fell in love with her: I don’t think men of our class do fall in love. The constant exercising the imitative powers in delineating that passion, weakens, I think, the power of feeling it as other men feel it. I liked her; she was good, industrious, rising in the profession, and I married her. There never was a better woman lived, and she had her reward: I don’t suppose that there ever was a woman more respected in any company. I never had even a row about her but once, and then, a man being very insolent to her, she came and told me, just as I came off as Macduff in ‘Macbeth.’ I went to the manager and told him that the man must leave the place at once. The manager said it was impossible; he was a son of the noble owner of half the town; his father was then in the house; these things must be endured. I said they should not be endured; and that if he would not protect the ladies in his company, I should take the liberty of protecting my wife.”

“And how did it end?”

“Why, I went to the little beast, titled as he was, and kicked him out at the stage door. I did, sir, though you would not think it to look at me now.”

“And the manager?”

“Came and thanked me. Said he was much obliged to me; he had had more annoyance from the complaints of the girls about that fellow than from any other cause. He raised mine and my wife’s salary that same week.”

I had been noticing while he was speaking a number of children who came out of the house, and were dispersing in various groups to play. They were all dressed alike in the grey, true pauper grey, and ran and jumped as if they were not dependent on a paternal state for their support. One child, a little, large eyed girl, passed once or twice before us, and then stood still, looking at me a little way off. I looked at her, and she pulled the corner of her little apron, and blushed, and so remained till he had done speaking.

“Whose is that pretty child, there?” said I.

“That—that’s my little Alice. Here, Alice! come here, dear.”

The child needed no second bidding, but ran to the old pauper; and, being lifted with no little effort on to his knee, hid her face against his breast, and still glanced at me. I, of course, found some object of attraction in the garden that enabled me to let her see my face without my appearing to see her; she was soon satisfied, apparently, for the glances became more bold and determined.

“Who is that, Papa Gowling?”

“A friend of mine; he won’t hurt you.”

She looked again to see if I had any intention of doing her mischief, and, being satisfied, sat upright on the old man’s knee.

“There, Alice, you see he’s not going to hurt my little Alice. Won’t you shake hands with him?”

She did.

This your grand-child?” said I.

“Yes,—the only one left,” and the voice fell as he stooped and kissed her uplifted face.

“You were saying that the manager raised your salary after the little fracas about your wife?”

“Ah! yes, he did, and we went on very well for some time. I began to find I was not a star. Once or twice I went up to London and heard some of the best men, and found that I could not equal them. I don’t know a more painful sensation, sir, than that attendant on the discovery of the limit of your powers. Every man not blinded by conceit, who is over thirty, must have felt this. There is a limit to our powers; other men have more—some less, but still it is very painful to feel conscious that the eminence that man has attained to whom you are listening, is beyond you. Young men—very young men—feel that what man has done man can do. It does not last. Most men at thirty know their pace well enough to tell them that they will be in the ruck of the race of life.

“Well, some few years after I was married, this conviction came to me—I knew I could never be a star—a great actor. It was not in me. I was simply a respectable one. I could take any part, and do that part so that I was not laughed at; but there I was stopped. I could go no further. I never could raise the enthusiasm of my audience. They listened and did not disapprove; but when I played a leading part, the boxes did not let and the pit was not full. I could not help it, you know. I can safely say I never went on without knowing every word of the part. I was always correct, and in the second and third parts did well. Stars liked me. They used to come down for the benefits occasionally, and used to say, ‘Let me have Gowling with me; he’s a safe man, never too forward,—no clap-trap with him—he’s not showy, but he’s safe.’ Now, you see, praise is a good thing, but when a man has dreamed for ten years or so that he is to be the star of the theatrical world, it is rather hard to wake up and find a star of no very great magnitude telling him he’s a very good background to show that star’s light. Ah me! those hopes of youth,—how the large bud brings forth but the little flower!”

“Still, Mr. Gowling, it was something not to have failed utterly. There must be backgrounds, you know, and there must be second parts as well as first.”

“True, sir, true; and human nature soon adapts itself to circumstances. Three months after I knew I was no genius, the ambition to be one left me. I was content to do my part and enjoy life. I had four children—three boys and one girl. That’s her child—poor little thing.” And he stroked the head of little Alice caressingly while she played with the buttons on his coat.

“The boys, of course, we tried to make useful in the profession. Christmas was a family harvest,—all were busy then—all making money. You know that the profession is not favourable to health. The excitement—particularly to children—soon wears them out. I know, often and often, I’ve seen my boys as imps and that kind of thing, and felt the life was too fast for them. Late at night, to go from the hot theatre into the cold night air, was a sad trial to the constitution, and children are not old men. You cannot persuade boys of twelve and fourteen that they ought to wrap their throats, and not run out into the cold at night. We could not, and we lost two of the three boys within a year of each other. Lung-disease, the doctor said. It carries off a good many of those children, you see, in the Christmas pantomimes. I often wonder whether the house thinks of those kind of things.”

“And the other children?”

“The boy left our company when he was about eighteen, and joined another as second gentleman. He was as good an actor as his father, and no better. He thought he was a genius, poor boy, as his father had thought before him. He had no experience to teach him; so he thought he was ill-used, and left us.”

“And what became of him?”

“At first we used to hear from him now and then, then there was a long silence, and his mother worried herself dreadfully about him. One night I had been playing a country gentleman in a screaming farce, as the bills called it, for in a small company you are a king, a warrior, and a fool—all in one evening; so my wife had gone home, and when I arrived came to the door to let me in.

‘Don’t be frightened, dear, here’s Alfred come back.’

“I went up, and there he was; but, my God! what a wreck. His eyes blood-shot, his hands trembling, and a hot red spot on his cheeks.

‘Well, father, how are you?’

“I did not answer, I sat down, and cried. He tried hard to keep from it, but he couldn’t; he came and knelt down in front of me, covered his face with his hands, and cried like a child. His mother, poor soul, clung round his neck, and kissed him, and cried till I was beside myself. He told his story. He had made a mistake. He thought himself a great actor. Managers did not; the public backed the managers, and were right too. He could not stand the disappointment; had no wife as his father had had to console him, and he took to the actor’s curse—drink. He sank lower and lower, became ill, could do nothing, and just crawled home to die.

“One night, I had just come off, when I was told some one wanted me at the stage-door. I went, and found the girl of the house where we lodged. She wanted me to come home directly; I was wanted at once. Mr. Alfred was very ill. Our manager had his benefit that night, and we had one of the first-rate London men down as Hamlet. I was dressed as the Ghost. I forgot all about dress then, and rushed home: it was too late, poor Alfred was gone! He lay, his head in his mother’s arms; she was dressed as the Queen, and was weeping hot, silent tears that fell on my dead boy’s face, one by one. His sister was sunk down on her knees by the bed-side, as I entered, and the people of the house were standing looking on. I shall never forget it—never.

“I was roused by a touch on the shoulder. A message from the theatre.

‘Manager says he should be glad if you could come back.’

‘Look here, Jennings, do you think I can?’

‘Not to do anything, sir; but you might see him; perhaps it would be better.’

“I left them, and went back, saw the manager and told him; and though it was his benefit night, he said he would read both parts himself.

‘God bless you, Gowling, I am sorry for you, very sorry; if I can do anything for you, let me know.’

“I went to the dressing-room, and as I left the place, heard the applause that attended the apologies for our absence, and his announcement of his intention to read the parts. Managers are not all alike, and he was a good friend to me, was Charles Gordon.

“We buried the poor boy, and then went on as before. His mother never recovered the blow, and gradually sunk, and about six months after his death, could no longer take her parts; so Alice and I had to do our best. I noticed that a young fellow had been rather attentive to her, and was not surprised when he took me aside one night and told me he wanted to make her his wife. He was just such another as I had been myself when his age. I thought it better to see her the wife of a respectable actor than remain single behind the scenes, for she was a good girl was Alice. Well, they married, and remained in the company. I was getting old you see, then, and it was some comfort to see her with some one to take care of her. Soon after she married, her mother died, and I laid in the grave, beside her son, one of the best women that ever lived. I was alone now, and old, for the wear and tear of an active life, and the late hours, tell on the strongest constitution. It was something awful the change from the light, and glare, and noise of the theatre to the silence and quiet of my own poor room. Just then, too, the company was broken up; and at the age I was then, it was a serious thing for me. We all three tried to keep together, but it was no use. Those who wanted an old man did not want a second lady, or a third gentleman, and so we were divided. I went on circuit as an old man with very poor pay—as much as I was worth though, I dare say, for I was getting feeble, and ‘Speak up, old ’un!’ was the salute I had from the galleries, directly 1 opened my mouth.

“I heard from Alice every week, and saved her letter for Sundays, for the day was long and dull to me. I could not make new friends. The young pitied me, and I was proud then, and ‘loved not pity;’ so I was a lonely old man.

“Alice’s husband died. I don’t remember now how it was, but he died, and she told me it was just after this little one was born. I quite longed to see her, but she could not come, and I could not go, so we only wrote to each other. I have all her letters now, poor girl. She came to see me once afterwards, and was looking ill and fagged; and soon after that visit our company was broken up again.

“I tried hard for an engagement, travelled from place to place, spent all the little I had saved, and then was laid up at a place some fifty or sixty miles from here. They took me from the inn to the Union when the money was gone; and after a deal of waiting and grumbling they brought me here. I little thought when, as a boy, I used to get the nests out of this tree, that I should end my days here, an old worn-out pauper. You know where it says, ‘There’s a Providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we may.’ I’ve often said that on the stage. I feel it now.” And the old man mused in silence.

“And your daughter?”

“Alice? She died in this house not two years ago, poor child.”

“Here, do you mean?”

“Yes, there, in that room.” And he pointed to a window in the back part of the house. “That one, where the sun shines on it through the trees.”

“Of what did she die? She was young.”

“The same disease that carried off her brothers, consumption. She knew I was here, and spent her last money in coming; and the doctor, good fellow that he is, would have her in here. She lingered on for about a fortnight up there, and then died one evening at sunset, holding my hand, and the child lying on her breast. Poor girl! she looked so beautiful in her coffin. Ah! I’ve outlived them all but this little one.” And the old man looked fondly on the child, and stroked her head with his lean shrivelled hand. “It’s rather sad to see them all gone—all—wife, sons, and Alice all gone. Poor Alice!” And the old pauper’s eyes were full of the slow-coming tears of age.

I had a cough, and felt husky in the throat, and the wind blew the dust in my eyes as I watched him.

“You and my friend seem to agree well, Mr. Gowling,” said the voice of the master close by.

“Yes, sir, he says he likes to listen to an old man’s talk. It’s very kind of him—very kind.”

“I’ve been expressing my wonder to Mr. Gowling to find him here.”

“Want of proper economy, sir; nothing more. People of his profession are very reckless and improvident, very.”

“You’re right and you’re wrong at once,” said the old man. “We are not a saving people, I grant. The whole tendency of the profession is against it. We don’t earn much, I mean such as myself. Of course genius is always well rewarded, but mediocrity in this is subject to competition as in other trades or professions. Then the little we do earn is spent in ways to which other professions have nothing analogous. Look at our dresses—we find all, and when a man throws himself into his part, does his best to please the public and do his duty to the manager, he will not have much left to be extravagant with. Besides, the qualities of nature that make a good economist—a careful saving man—are not those which make a good actor. It is too much to ask that a man should, on the stage, have to affect the liberal notions of a spendthrift, and off the stage be a niggard. Then, too, we lean on one another. When do you see an appeal in the public papers from the widow of an actor in great distress? You may see dozens of such appeals from widows of other professional men. We help each other, and many a time the last guinea I had in the world has gone to help some brother-actor in difficulty.”

“Still, Mr. Gowling, you admit it is possible to save.”

‘Oh, yes! possible, but difficult, inasmuch as the qualities that make the actor are not, nor are they usually found associated with, those of the rigid economist; and it is only the rigid economist amongst such men as myself who can save at all. Look, too, at the liabilities to disease, the uncertainties of the means of living we have, and you will see that we are, on the whole, as hardly worked for the amount of pay we receive as any class of men.”

“Well, then, Mr. Gowling, when you’ve not saved, and are poor, the State takes care of you.”

“Mr. Atherton, I don’t think it ought to be left to the State to do that. We actors do little for the State, add little to her wealth or greatness, but we do a good deal for that public which is not the State. I think that if any class in their old age have a claim on the public beyond that which the law of mere competition, of mere barter and sale, gives, it is my own class. We sacrifice our lives to a life-wearing profession, and we are paid for it. Well, you say, there the matter ends.”

“Certainly, the public pays you for your exertions, and all claim is discharged.”

“Not so: the public does not say so in other cases. Look at the hundreds of refuges for the old poor of various trades and professions, and you will see evidence enough that there is something in a man’s heart that tells him the law of competition must be supplemented by another—that of benevolence—and it should be so in our case particularly. How many pleasant hours have the public gained out of my expenditure of my life; and the public gratitude leaves me to the State, and the State puts me in this—(and he touched his grey coat). I, who have worn the mantle of a king, the robe of a senator, and the dress of a gentleman all my life, go about badged as a pauper, stamped as a beggar, and have to associate constantly with men whose lives have been spent on the roads, the field, or in a stable. They are men, I grant, but I’ve been used to different company,” and the old player’s vigour seemed to come back to him as he spoke. “The public, sir, should take it up; and if the decayed fishmongers, ironmongers, watermen, and a host of other useful trades have their refuges for their poor, I don’t think it is asking too much that we should have some place where we might spend the few remaining days of our lives—we should not trouble the earth long, any of us; and gratitude for what we have done might induce a public we have amused to find us this. If each one whom we amuse were to give a little, it might be done with ease to all.”

“But suppose,” urged the master, “that some such place were provided; would it not tend to induce still more that carelessness which I have mentioned?”

“Does this place tend to it?” said the old man, contemptuously. “No; nor could any place be made so attractive as to make a man become a beggar in order to claim it. You fancy, when you see me moving about here, I am hardened to it, and do not feel the degradation. I do—I feel it every day; and though I might feel it less were I accepting the graceful gift of a grateful public, I should still love independence of the gift more. No man would save less because such a place as players’ almshouses existed; but the existence of such a place would be at once a comfort for our old and poor men and women, and not a little creditable to the nation who established it.”

A bell here rung.

“There, Alice, you must go in. Good night, my child.”

She kissed him so fondly, and slid off his knee, and went in.

“And now I must go, sir, too. I’m going to bed, and my bed lies between a decayed journeyman butcher and a road mender, and they talk across me.”

“Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Gowling?”

“Well, a little tobacco and a few readable books would be acceptable. Perhaps you may live to see the day when an old worn-out actor may have less humiliating favours to ask at the hands of his friends.” And the old man slowly walked towards the house.

I walked home, and thought of the old grey-coated pauper actor. And now, thank God! the day has come when the public has resolved that the old players’ almshouses shall no longer be a wish and hope of years gone by, but a monument of its gratitude for all years to come.

A. Stewart Harrison.