Nicholas Nickleby/Chapter 23
TREATS OF THE COMPANY OF MR. VINCENT CRUMMLES, AND OF HIS AFFAIRS, DOMESTIC AND THEATRICAL.
As Mr. Crummles had a strange four-legged animal in the inn stables, which he called a pony, and a vehicle of unknown design, on which he bestowed the appellation of a four-wheeled phaeton, Nicholas proceeded on his journey next morning with greater ease than he had expected: the manager and himself occupying the front seat, and the Master Crummleses and Smike being packed together behind, in company with a wicker basket defended from wet by a stout oilskin, in which were the broad-swords, pistols, pigtails, nautical costumes, and other professional necessaries of the aforesaid young gentlemen.
The pony took his time upon the road, and—possibly in consequence of his theatrical education—evinced every now and then a strong inclination to lie down. However, Mr. Vincent Crummles kept him up pretty well, by jerking the rein, and plying the whip; and when these means failed, and the animal came to a stand, the elder Master Crummles got out and kicked him. By dint of these encouragements, he was persuaded to move from time to time, and they jogged on (as Mr. Crummles truly observed) very comfortably for all parties.
"He's a good pony at bottom," said Mr. Crummles, turning to Nicholas.
He might have been at bottom, but he certainly was not at top, seeing that his coat was of the roughest and most ill-favoured kind. So, Nicholas merely observed, that he shouldn't wonder if he was.
"Many and many is the circuit this pony has gone," said Mr. Crummles, flicking him skilfully on the eyelid for old acquaintance' sake.
"He is quite one of us. His mother was on the stage."
"Was she, indeed?" rejoined Nicholas.
"She ate apple-pie at a circus for upwards of fourteen years," said the manager; "fired pistols, and went to bed in a nightcap; and, in short, took the low comedy entirely. His father was a dancer."
"Was he at all distinguished?"
"Not very," said the manager. "He was rather a low sort of pony. The fact is, that he had been originally jobbed out by the day, and he never quite got over his old habits. He was clever in melodrama too, but too broad—too broad. When the mother died, he took the port-wine business."
"The port-wine business!" cried Nicholas.
"Drinking port-wine with the clown," said the manager; "but he was greedy, and one night bit off the bowl of the glass, and choked himself, so that his vulgarity was the death of him at last."
The descendant of this ill-starred animal requiring increased attention from Mr. Crummles as he progressed in his day's work, that gentleman had very little time for conversation, and Nicholas was thus left at leisure to entertain himself with his own thoughts until they arrived at the drawbridge at Portsmouth, when Mr. Crummles pulled up.
"We'll set down here," said the manager, "and the boys will take him round to the stable, and call at my lodgings with the luggage. You had better let yours be taken there for the present."
Thanking Mr. Vincent Crummles for his obliging offer, Nicholas jumped out, and, giving Smike his arm, accompanied the manager up High Street on their way to the theatre, feeling nervous and uncomfortable enough at the prospect of an immediate introduction to a scene so new to him.
They passed a great many bills pasted against the walls and displayed in windows, wherein the names of Mr. Vincent Crummles, Mrs. Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, were printed in very large letters, and everything else in very small ones; and turning at length into an entry, in which was a strong smell of orange-peel and lamp-oil, with an under-current of saw-dust, groped their way through a dark passage, and, descending a step or two, threaded a little maze of canvass screens and paint pots, and emerged upon the stage of the Portsmouth Theatre.
"Here we are," said Mr. Crummles.
It was not very light, but Nicholas found himself close to the first entrance on the prompter's side, among bare walls, dusty scenes, mildewed clouds, heavily daubed draperies, and dirty floors. He looked about him; ceiling, pit, boxes, gallery, orchestra, fittings, and decorations of every kind,—all looked coarse, cold, gloomy, and wretched.
"Is this a theatre?" whispered Smike, in amazement; "I thought it was a blaze of light and finery."
"Why, so it is," replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; "but not by day, Smike—not by day."
The manager's voice recalled him from a more careful inspection of the building, to the opposite side of the proscenium, where, at a small mahogany table with rickety legs and of an oblong shape, sat a stout, portly female, apparently between forty and fifty, in a tarnished silk cloak, with her bonnet dangling by the strings in her hand, and her hair (of which she had a great quantity) braided in a large festoon over each temple.
"Mr. Johnson," said the manager (for Nicholas had given the name which Newman Noggs had bestowed upon him in his conversation with Mrs. Kenwigs), "let me introduce Mrs. Vincent Crummles."
"I am glad to see you, Sir," said Mrs. Vincent Crummles, in a sepulchral voice. "I am very glad to see you, and still more happy to hail you as a promising member of our corps."
The lady shook Nicholas by the hand as she addressed him in these terms; he saw it was a large one, but had not expected quite such an iron grip as that with which she honoured him.
"And this," said the lady, crossing to Smike, as tragic actresses cross when they obey a stage direction, "and this is the other. You too, are welcome, Sir."
"He'll do, I think, my dear?" said the manager, taking a pinch of snuff.
"He is admirable," replied the lady. "An acquisition, indeed."
As Mrs. Vincent Crummles re-crossed back to the table, there bounded on to the stage from some mysterious inlet, a little girl in a dirty white frock with tucks up to the knees, short trousers, sandaled shoes, white spencer, pink gauze bonnet, green veil and curl-papers, who turned a pirouette, cut twice in the air, turned another pirouette, then looking off at the opposite wing shrieked, bounded forward to within six inches of the footlights, and fell into a beautiful attitude of terror, as a shabby gentleman in an old pair of buff slippers came in at one powerful slide, and chattering his teeth, fiercely brandished a walking-stick.
"They are going through the Indian Savage and the Maiden," said Mrs. Crummles.
"Oh!" said the manager, "the little ballet interlude. Very good, go on. A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That'll do. Now."
The manager clapped his hands as a signal to proceed, and the Savage, becoming ferocious, made a slide towards the maiden, but the maiden avoided him in six twirls, and came down at the end of the last one upon the very points of her toes. This seemed to make some impression upon the savage, for, after a little more ferocity and chasing of the maiden into corners, he began to relent, and stroked his face several times with his right thumb and four fingers, thereby intimating that he was struck with admiration of the maiden s beauty. Acting upon the impulse of this passion, he (the savage) began to hit himself severe thumps in the chest, and to exhibit other indications of being desperately in love, which being rather a prosy proceeding, was very likely the cause of the maiden's falling asleep; whether it was or not, asleep she did fall, sound as a church, on a sloping bank, and the savage perceiving it, leant his left ear on his left hand, and nodded sideways, to intimate to all whom it might concern that she was asleep, and no shamming. Being left to himself, the savage had a dance, all alone, and just as he left off the maiden woke up, rubbed her eyes, got off the bank, and had a dance all alone too—such a dance that the savage looked on in ecstasy all the while, and when it was done, plucked from a neighbouring tree some botanical curiosity, resembling a small pickled cabbage, and offered it to the maiden, who at first wouldn't have it, but on the savage shedding tears relented. Then the savage jumped for joy; then the maiden jumped for rapture at the sweet smell of the pickled cabbage. Then the savage and the maiden danced violently together, and, finally, the savage dropped down on one knee, and the maiden stood on one leg upon his other knee; thus concluding the ballet, and leaving the spectators in a state of pleasing uncertainty, whether she would ultimately marry the savage, or return to her friends.
"Very well indeed," said Mr. Crummles; "bravo!"
"Bravo!" cried Nicholas, resolved to make the best of everything. "Beautiful!"
"This, Sir," said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the maiden forward, "this is the infant phenomenon— Miss Ninetta Crummles."
"Your daughter?" inquired Nicholas.
"My daughter—my daughter," replied Mr. Vincent Crummies; "the idol of every place we go into, Sir. We have had complimentary letters about this girl, Sir, from the nobility and gentry of almost every town in England."
"I am not surprised at that," said Nicholas; "she must be quite a natural genius."
"Quite a——!" Mr. Crummies stopped; language was not powerful enough to describe the infant phenomenon. "I'll tell you what, Sir," he said; "the talent of this child is not to be imagined. She must be seen, Sir—seen—to be ever so faintly appreciated. There; go to your mother, my dear."
"May I ask how old she is? " inquired Nicholas.
"You may, Sir," replied Mr. Crummies, looking steadily in his questioner's face as some men do when they have doubts about being implicitly believed in what they are going to say. "She is ten years of age, Sir."
"Not a day."
"Dear me!" said Nicholas, "it's extraordinary."
It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age—not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin and water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the infant phenomenon these additional phenomena.
While this short dialogue was going on, the gentleman who had enacted the savage came up, with his walking-shoes on his feet, and his slippers in his hand, to within a few paces, as if desirous to join in the conversation, and deeming this a good opportunity he put in his word.
"Talent there, Sir," said the savage, nodding towards Miss Crummles.
"Ah! " said the actor, setting his teeth together, and drawing in his breath with a hissing sound, "she oughtn't to be in the provinces, she oughtn't."
"What do you mean?" asked the manager.
"I mean to say," replied the other, warmly, "that she is too good for country boards, and that she ought to be in one of the large houses in London, or nowhere; and I tell you more, without mincing the matter, that if it wasn't for envy and jealousy in some quarter that you know of, she would be. Perhaps you'll introduce me here, Mr. Crummles."
"Mr. Folair," said the manager, presenting him to Nicholas.
"Happy to know you, Sir." Mr. Folair touched the brim of his hat with his forefinger, and then shook hands. "A recruit, Sir, I understand?"
"An unworthy one," replied Nicholas.
"Did you ever see such a set-out as that?" whispered the actor, drawing him away, as Crummles left them to speak to his wife.
Mr. Folair made a funny face from his pantomime collection, and pointed over his shoulder.
"You don't mean the infant phenomenon!"
"Infant humbug, Sir," replied Mr. Folair. "There isn't a female child of common sharpness in a charity school that couldn't do better than that. She may thank her stars she was born a manager's daughter."
"You seem to take it to heart," observed Nicholas, with a smile.
"Yes, by Jove, and well I may," said Mr. Folair, drawing his arm through his, and walking him up and down the stage. "Isn't it enough to make a man crusty to see that little sprawler put up in the best business every night, and actually keeping money out of the house, by being forced down the people's throats, while other people are passed over? Isn't it extraordinary to see a man's confounded family conceit blinding him even to his own interest? Why I know of fifteen and sixpence that came to Southampton one night last month to see me dance the Highland Fling, and what's the consequence? I've never been put up in it since—never once—while the 'infant phenomenon' has been grinning through artificial flowers at five people and a baby in the pit, and two boys in the gallery, every night."
"If I may judge from what I have seen of you," said Nicholas, "you must be a valuable member of the company."
"Oh!" replied Mr. Folair, beating his slippers together, to knock the dust out; "I can come it pretty well—nobody better perhaps in my own line—but having such business as one gets here, is like putting lead on one's feet instead of chalk, and dancing in fetters without the credit of it. Holloa, old fellow, how are you?"
The gentleman addressed in these latter words was a dark-complexioned man, inclining indeed to sallow, with long thick black hair, and very evident indications (although he was close shaved) of a stiff beard, and whiskers of the same deep shade. His age did not appear to exceed thirty, although many at first sight would have considered him much older, as his face was long and very pale, from the constant application of stage paint. He wore a checked shirt, an old green coat with new gilt buttons, a neckerchief of broad red and green stripes, and full blue trousers; he carried too a common ash walking-stick, apparently more for show than use, as he flourished it about with the hooked end downwards, except when he raised it for a few seconds, and throwing himself into a fencing attitude, made a pass or two at the side-scenes, or at any other object, animate or inanimate, that chanced to afford him a pretty good mark at the moment.
"Well, Tommy," said this gentleman, making a thrust at his friend, who parried it dexterously with his slipper, "what's the news?"
"A new appearance, that's all," replied Mr. Folair, looking at Nicholas.
"Do the honours. Tommy, do the honours," said the other gentleman, tapping him reproachfully on the crown of the hat with his stick.
"This is Mr. Lenville, who does our first tragedy, Mr. Johnson," said the pantomimist.
"Except when old bricks and mortar takes it into his head to do it himself, you should add, Tommy," remarked Mr. Lenville. "You know who bricks and mortar is, I suppose, Sir?"
"I do not, indeed," replied Nicholas.
"We call Crummles that, because his style of acting is rather in the heavy and ponderous way," said Mr. Lenville. "I mustn't be cracking jokes though, for I've got a part of twelve lengths here which I must be up in to-morrow night, and I haven't had time to look at it yet; I'm a confounded quick study, that's one comfort."
Consoling himself with this reflection, Mr. Lenville drew from his coat-pocket a greasy and crumpled manuscript, and having made another pass at his friend proceeded to walk to and fro, conning it to himself, and indulging occasionally in such appropriate action as his imagination and the text suggested.
A pretty general muster of the company had by this time taken place; for besides Mr. Lenville and his friend Tommy, there was present a slim young gentleman with weak eyes, who played the low-spirited lovers and sang tenor songs, and who had come arm-in-arm with the comic countryman—a man with a turned-up nose, large mouth, broad face, and staring eyes. Making himself very amiable to the infant phenomenon, was an inebriated elderly gentleman in the last depths of shabbiness, who played the calm and virtuous old men; and paying especial court to Mrs. Crummles was another elderly gentleman, a shade more respectable, who played the irascible old men—those funny fellows who have nephews in the army, and perpetually run about with thick sticks to compel them to marry heiresses. Besides these, there was a roving-looking person in a rough great-coat, who strode up and down in front of the lamps, flourishing a dress cane, and rattling away in an undertone with great vivacity for the amusement of an ideal audience. He was not quite so young as he had been, and his figure was rather running to seed; but there was an air of exaggerated gentility about him, which bespoke the hero of swaggering comedy. There was also a little group of three or four young men, with lantern jaws and thick eyebrows, who were conversing in one corner; but they seemed to be of secondary importance, and laughed and talked together without attracting any very marked attention.
The ladies were gathered in a little knot by themselves round the rickety table before mentioned. There was Miss Snevellicci, who could do anything from a medley dance to Lady Macbeth, and always played some part in blue silk knee-smalls at her benefit, glancing from the depths of her coal-scuttle straw bonnet at Nicholas, and affecting to be absorbed in the recital of a diverting story to her friend Miss Ledrook, who had brought her work, and was making up a ruff in the most natural manner possible. There was Miss Belvawney, who seldom aspired to speaking parts, and usually went on as a page in white silk hose, to stand with one leg bent and contemplate the audience, or to go in and out after Mr. Crummles in stately tragedy, twisting up the ringlets of the beautiful Miss Bravassa, who had once had her likeness taken "in character" by an engraver's apprentice, whereof impressions were hung up for sale in the pastry-cook's window, and the green-grocer's, and at the circulating library, and the box-office, whenever the announce bills came out for her annual night. There was Mrs. Lenville in a very limp bonnet and veil, decidedly in that way in which she would wish to be if she truly loved Mr. Lenville; there was Miss Gazingi, with an imitation ermine boa tied in a loose knot round her neck, flogging Mr. Crummles, junior, with both ends in fun. Lastly, there was Mrs. Grudden in a brown cloth pelisse and a beaver bonnet, who assisted Mrs. Crummles in her domestic affairs, and took money at the doors, and dressed the ladies, and swept the house, and held the prompt book when everybody else was on for the last scene, and acted any kind of part on any emergency without ever learning it, and was put down in the bills under any name or names whatever that occurred to Mr. Crummles as looking well in print.
Mr. Folair having obligingly confided these particulars to Nicholas, left him to mingle with his fellows; the work of personal introduction was completed by Mr. Vincent Crummles, who publicly heralded the new actor as a prodigy of genius and learning.
"I beg your pardon," said Miss Snevellicci, sidling towards Nicholas, "but did you ever play at Canterbury?"
"I never did," replied Nicholas.
"I recollect meeting a gentleman at Canterbury," said Miss Snevellicci, "only for a few moments, for I was leaving the company as he joined it, so like you that I felt almost certain it was the same."
"I see you now for the first time," rejoined Nicholas with all due gallantry. "I am sure I never saw you before; I couldn't have forgotten it."
"Oh, I'm sure—it's very flattering of you to say so," retorted Miss Snevellicci with a graceful bend. "Now I look at you again, I see that the gentleman at Canterbury hadn't the same eyes as you—you'll think me very foolish for taking notice of such things, won't you?"
"Not at all," said Nicholas. "How can I feel otherwise than flattered by your notice in any way?"
"O! you men, you are such vain creatures!" cried Miss Snevellicci. Whereupon she became charmingly confused, and, pulling out her pocket handkerchief from a faded pink silk reticule with a gilt clasp, called to Miss Ledrook—
"Led, my dear," said Miss Snevellicci.
"Well, what is the matter?" said Miss Ledrook.
"It's not the same."
"Not the same what?"
"Canterbury—you know what I mean. Come here, I want to speak to you."
But Miss Ledrook wouldn't come to Miss Snevellicci, so Miss Snevellicci was obliged to go to Miss Ledrook, which she did in a skipping manner that was quite fascinating, and Miss Ledrook evidently joked Miss Snevellicci about being struck with Nicholas, for, after some playful whispering, Miss Snevellicci hit Miss Ledrook very hard on the backs of her hands, and retired up, in a state of pleasing confusion.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Vincent Crummles, who had been writing on a piece of paper, "we'll call the Mortal Struggle to- morrow at ten; everybody for the procession. Intrigue, and Ways and Means, you're all up in, so we shall only want one rehearsal. Everybody at ten, if you please."
"Everybody at ten," repeated Mrs. Grudden, looking about her.
"On Monday morning we shall read a new piece," said Mr. Crummles; "the name's not known yet, but everybody will have a good part. Mr. Johnson will take care of that."
"Hallo!" said Nicholas, starting, "I——"
"On Monday morning," repeated Mr. Crummles, raising his voice, to drown the unfortunate Mr. Johnson's remonstrance; "that'll do, ladies and gentlemen."
The ladies and gentlemen required no second notice to quit, and in a few minutes the theatre was deserted, save by the Crummles' family, Nicholas, and Smike.
"Upon my word," said Nicholas, taking the manager aside, "I don't think I can be ready by Monday."
"Pooh, pooh," replied Mr. Crummles.
"But really I can't," returned Nicholas; "my invention is not accustomed to these demands, or possibly I might produce——"
"Invention! what the devil's that got to do with it! " cried the manager, hastily.
"Everything, my dear Sir."
"Nothing, my dear Sir," retorted the manager, with, evident impatience. "Do you understand French?"
"Very good," said the manager, opening the table-drawer, and giving a roll of paper from it to Nicholas. "There, just turn that into English, and put your name on the title-page. Damn me," said Mr. Crummles, angrily, "if I haven't often said that I wouldn't have a man or woman in my company that wasn't master of the language, so that they might learn it from the original, and play it in English, and by that means save all this trouble and expense."
Nicholas smiled, and pocketed the play.
"What are you going to do about your lodgings?" said Mr. Crummles.
Nicholas could not help thinking that for the first week it would be an uncommon convenience to have a turn-up bedstead in the pit, but he merely remarked that he had not turned his thoughts that way.
"Come home with me then," said Mr. Crummles, "and my boys shall go with you after dinner, and show you the most likely place."
The offer was not to be refused: Nicholas and Mr. Crummles gave Mrs. Crummles an arm each, and walked up the street in stately array. Smike, the boys, and the phenomenon, went home by a shorter cut, and Mrs. Grudden remained behind to take some cold Irish stew and a pint of porter in the box-office.
Mrs. Crummles trod the pavement as if she were going to immediate execution with an animating consciousness of innocence and that heroic fortitude which- virtue alone inspires. Mr. Crummles, on the other hand, assumed the look and gait of a hardened despot; but they both attracted some notice from many of the passers-by, and when they heard a whisper of "Mr. and Mrs. Crummles," or saw a little boy run back to stare them in the face, the severe expression of their countenances relaxed, for they felt it was popularity.
Mr. Crummles lived in Saint Thomas's Street, at the house of one Bulph, a pilot, who sported a boat-green door, with window-frames of the same colour, and had the little finger of a drowned man on his parlour mantel-shelf, with other maritime and natural curiosities. He displayed also a brass knocker, a brass plate, and a brass bell-handle, all very bright and shining; and had a mast, with a vane on the top of it, in his back yard.
"You are welcome," said Mrs. Crummles, turning round to Nicholas when they reached the bow-windowed front room on the first floor. Nicholas bowed his acknowledgments, and was unfeignedly glad to see the cloth laid.
"We have but a shoulder of mutton with onion sauce," said Mrs. Crummles, in the same charnel-house voice; "but such as our dinner is, we beg you to partake of it."
"You are very good," replied Nicholas, "I shall do it ample justice."
"Vincent," said Mrs. Crummles, "what is the hour?"
"Five minutes past dinner-time," said Mr. Crummles.
Mrs. Crummles rang the bell. "Let the mutton and onion sauce appear."
The slave who attended upon Mr. Bulph's lodgers disappeared, and after a short interval re-appeared with the festive banquet. Nicholas and the infant phenomenon opposed each other at the pembroke-table, and Smike and the master Crummleses dined on the sofa bedstead.
"Are they very theatrical people here?" asked Nicholas.
"No," replied Mr. Crummles, shaking his head, "far from it—far from it."
"I pity them," observed Mrs. Crummles.
"So do I," said Nicholas; "if they have no relish for theatrical entertainments, properly conducted."
"Then they have none, Sir," rejoined Mr. Crummles. "To the infant's benefit, last year, on which occasion she repeated three of her most popular characters, and also appeared in the Fairy Porcupine, as originally performed by her, there was a house of no more than four pound twelve."
"Is it possible?" cried Nicholas.
"And two pound of that was trust, pa," said the phenomenon.
"And two pound of that was trust," repeated Mr. Crummles. "Mrs. Crummles herself has played to mere handfuls."
"But they are always a taking audience, Vincent," said the manager's wife.
"Most audiences are, when they have good acting—real good acting—the real thing," replied Mr. Crummles, forcibly.
"Do you give lessons, ma'am?" inquired Nicholas.
" I do," said Mrs. Crummles.
"There is no teaching here, I suppose?"
"There has been," said Mrs. Crummles. "I have received pupils here. I imparted tuition to the daughter of a dealer in ships'; but it afterwards appeared that she was insane when she first came to me. It was very extraordinary that she should come, under such circumstances."
Not feeling quite so sure of that, Nicholas thought it best to hold his peace.
"Let me see," said the manager cogitating after dinner. "Would you like some nice little part with the infant?"
"You are very good," replied Nicholas hastily; "but I think perhaps it would be better if I had somebody of my own size at first, in case I should turn out awkward. I should feel more at home perhaps."
"True," said the manager. "Perhaps you would, and you could play up to the infant in time you know."
"Certainly," replied Nicholas: devoutly hoping that it would be a very long time before he was honoured with this distinction.
"Then I'll tell you what we'll do," said Mr. Crummles. "You shall study Romeo when you've done that piece—don't forget to throw the pump and tubs in by-the-bye—Juliet Miss Snevellicci, old Grudden the nurse.—Yes, that'll do very well. Rover too;—you might get up Rover while you were about it, and Cassio, and Jeremy Diddler. You can easily knock them off; one part helps the other so much. Here they are, cues and all."
With these hasty general directions Mr. Crummles thrust a number of little books into the faltering hands of Nicholas, and bidding his eldest son go with him and show him where lodgings were to be had, shook him by the hand and wished him good night.
There is no lack of comfortable furnished apartments in Portsmouth, and no difficulty in finding some that are proportionate to very slender finances; but the former were too good, and the latter too bad, and they went into so many houses, and came out unsuited, that Nicholas seriously began to think he should be obliged to ask permission to spend the night in the theatre, after all.
Eventually, however, they stumbled upon two small rooms up three pair of stairs, or rather two pair and a ladder, at a tobacconist's shop, on the Common Hard, a dirty street leading down to the dockyard.
These Nicholas engaged, only too happy to have escaped any request for payment of a week's rent beforehand.
"There, lay down our personal property, Smike," he said, after showing young Crummles down stairs. " We have fallen upon strange times, and God only knows the end of them; but I am tired with the events of these three days, and will postpone reflection till to-morrow—if I can."