my first appearance on any stage
Summertime. Place: On board H. M. S. Conway lying in the Stoyne. The ship was dressed from flying jib-boom to taffrail with many-colored flags. Her yards were manned and, as the guns of the guard-ship, H. M. S. Donegal, thundered out a royal salute, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, stepped over our gangway and we all cheered ourselves hoarse.
It was a great day! The Mayor and Corporation of Liverpool, all the great shipping magnates, with their wives, daughters, "sisters, cousins and aunts," and many of the parents of cadets belonging to the ship, were on board to witness the drill, inspection and annual distribution of prizes by the Duke—also the performance of a play, prepared by us after many weeks of anxious rehearsal, in which I was cast for the leading lady. I was to be one Laura, I think it was, in "Time Tries All."
Why I was chosen for such a prominent part, I am at loss to conceive unless because as a youngster I was possessed of a somewhat gentle manner and a face that lent itself to the requisites for making up to look like a girl.
A great big fair-haired, good-natured fellow named Cummings (he died of cholera, poor chap! in Bombay and we buried him the same evening down at Colaba), Bobby Knowles, whom I have never seen since, and Fred Passow, who after many years of service in the navy accepted a fine appointment with the Inman Line, and now commands one of their magnificent steamers, are the only others of the east that I can now recall.
Bobby Knowles had to be one of my lovers. I remember that there was a scene where he knelt at my feet. And I think Fred Passow was the inevitable "other man." There was also an episode with poor Cummings, but what it was has faded from my memory.
The main deck aft on the starboard side served as our stage and was gracefully draped with flags. Our audience sat on rows of chairs and forms arranged the same way as when we "rigged church" on Sundays. His Royal Highness and suite were in the middle of the front row surrounded by the Mayor and Corporation and the officers of the ship. Behind them were the distinguished guests and in the "gallery" or at the back of all, the couple of hundred cadets and the ship's company.
For some reason I was a prime favorite with the Captain's wife, and she had volunteered to provide the necessary dresses for my part. I had to appear in a riding habit and over this arose my first difficulty. We couldn't "fake" a riding habit and couldn't go to the expense of having one made. However, a very pretty girl—the sister of one of the boys—a strapping, rosy cheeked, healthy-looking English girl of about eighteen came to our rescue. She lived at Rock Ferry, off of which we were moored, and often came aboard to visit her brother. She would "lend her own riding habit for the occasion." That solved one difficulty, but when I came to put it on, the fact that she measured in every direction except up in the air about twice as much as I did was at once apparent. Something had to be done—but what?
Passow suggested towels.
Knowles roared at the sight of me.
Cummings voted, "Stuff him with socks."
Poor Mrs. Moull took me into the Captain's room, and after pondering the matter, decided there was nothing for it but to follow Cumming's suggestion. Our respective chests were at once ransacked and all the available socks brought up to complete my figure.
We had a regulation method of folding our socks, making each pair up into little ball. When my toilet was completed, I looked a bit bubbly and lumpy, but we smoothed things down as much as we could and every one said it looked fine. "It," I presume, being my figure.
Dear Mrs. Moull beamed on me with delight. Captain Moull grinned over over his good-natured, old face. But Cummings and Passow mortified me to blushes by making side-remarks about my figure, which they compared with everything unlike the virgin beauty I was supposed to represent.
The prizes were given, the Queen's Gold Medal awarded, the Duke's speech vociferously applauded, inspection and drill were over, and, while the visitors were being "regaled" at a repast, the shrill pipes of the boatswains' mates blew the call, "Rig Church!"
My heart began to beat fast. The long prepared for, but awful moment had arrived. We all got ready for our parts. The audience was seated. The band played and finally the curtain rose on, "Time Tries All."
Our audience was delightfully cordial. The Duke laughed good-humoredly and all went swimmingly until Bobby Knowles knelt at my feet and began his love scene. I think I had to "scorn him." Anyway, whatever it was, I had to rise from my chair and with an indignant gesture bide him "Begone!" It was something of that sort.
I did rise. I did throw out my arm. I did all we had rehearsed, but, in doing it by some means or other, my bosom unbuttoned and out came a pair of socks, which fell to the deck and rolled along to the feet of the Duke.
Some devilish shipmate at the back sang out, "Bravo, socks!"
The Duke roared—and so did every one else. I lost my head and could hear nothing but the jeers and yells of delight from the two hundred or more young devils in the "gallery." At length, stung to desperation, I tore open my bosom, and seizing the rest of my "figure," threw the socks like so many cannon balls at the heads of my tormentors. There was an uproar. Back came the socks. Amidst a scene of uproarious laughter and confusion, the curtain fell upon my first appearance on any stage.
We all got a horrible wigging from the Captain, but His Royal Highness was perfectly delighted, and voted that the amusement he had derived from our escapade was far beyond what he anticipated, and begged Captain Moull to pass the matter over. The Duke looked up aloft as we manned yards when he left the ship and he was still laughing when he got into the barge that pulled him away.
Some years afterwards, His Royal Highness visited India in the H. M. S. Galatea, of which ship Fred Passow was one of the junior officers. My ship was in Bombay, and I was in charge of the boat our ship sent ashore to the Apollo Bunder, where the Duke embarked to report himself on board the "Forte" frigate, then carrying the Commodore's flag at the station.
There were boats from each of the various ships in the harbor. All the crews tossed oars as the Prince came down the bunder, and we stood up in the stern sheets and saluted as he passed along.
Suddenly he stopped opposite my boat and a broad grin lit up his features. "Haven't I seen you somewhere before, youngster?" he asked.
I saluted and answered, "Yes, sir."
"Where was it?"
"On the Conway, sir."
"Socks, by God! I thought so!" cried the Prince and passed on roaring with laughter.