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"You've no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself, and how little I deserve it."— Ruddigore.
T was one dark, dank, dreary, dismal night in February, 1888 (I believe that is the way to commence a book, no matter what the subject be), when the present writer might have been seen standing, with other gentlemen, in a sombre dining-room brilliantly illuminated with one ceiling-lamp buried in a deep red shade. We were standing round the dining-room table, each with a dinner-napkin in the left hand; while the right hand was occupied in moving back chairs, to permit of the departure of the ladies for the drawing-room. I could not help thinking that, as they filed off, the ladies looked like queens; while we (especially with the aid of the serviettes) looked like waiters. The gentlemen drew their chairs round the host, and wine was languidly passed round. A tall gentleman, with a heavy beard, to whom I had not been introduced, approached me, and sat by my side. He passed me the spirit-lamp, for which I thanked him while lighting my cigarette. He then commenced a conversation in earnest.
"Did you see that Mr.—— is writing his reminiscences?
"Don't you think it rather a pity that he should do so?"
"Why a pity?" I asked in reply to his question.
"Well, I always think the moment a man begins to write his reminiscences he is bound, more or less, to make an ass of himself."
"In what way?" I asked.
"In the first place, he is hampered by having to be so egotistical. He must talk about himself, which is never a nice thing to do. He cannot very well tell stories in his own favour; and if he tells them against himself, he affects humility; if he talks about his distinguished acquaintances, he becomes a snob; in short, I can only repeat my former observation, that he is bound to make an ass of himself."
For a moment or two I did not know what to say, for my conscience smote me. At last I said:
"I am very pleased to hear your candid, and certainly unbiased, opinion; for I have just accepted an offer from Mr. Arrowsmith to do a shilling book of my own reminiscences for the Bristol Library Series."
My friend did not know what to say for a moment. His conscience evidently smote him. At last he remarked:
"I fear I have said one of those things that are best left unsaid."
"I'm glad you said it," I replied. "You have rather opened my eyes. It will be necessary for me to explain that I cannot very well back out of my agreement with Mr. Arrowsmith, although, candidly speaking, I have no desire to do so; and I shall certainly have to apologise to the reading public for making an ass of myself."
I have thought over the above conversation many a time since, and have concluded that I could not do better than commence this little book with it.
I have taken my own professional career, and used it as a peg whereon to hang my stories. I have chosen the title because I think it will look well on the bookstalls. It is by no means intended as a sneer at my calling. To clown properly is a very difficult art, and I am never so happy as when I am making people laugh. I am unfeignedly proud of my profession, on and off the stage. I have clowned amongst all sorts of people, and in all sorts of places. On the stage I play the fool of others' creation, and at the piano I play the simple fool of my own.
The late John Parry, whom I took as my model, was marvellous at amusing. His satire was worthy of Dickens or Thackeray. Though possessed of a small voice, few people could sing better, and certainly few could play the piano better than be. His was an "excellent fooling"that many have envied, many imitated, and none surpassed.
My first desire in producing the following sketches of my life is to benefit others, by making an hour pass pleasantly the library or in a railway carriage. My second desire, which goes without saying, is to benefit my publisher and myself.
Like all clowns, I have had my serious side of life — I have experienced many small troubles and some sorrows; but I shall not dwell on them, but merely reproduce some short notes — (having been a reporter, I may say shorthand notes) — of incidents which have amused me, and which I hope will equally entertain my readers. The majority I have had permission to publish, and the others I do not expect will be recognised. It would grieve me very much if I thought I had offended anyone.
Society has been exceedingly kind to its clown, and the clown is deeply grateful. My only ambition is, that someone in the dim future may speak half as kindly of me as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, spoke of the Society Clown of his period.
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