Secrets of a Savoyard
YOUTH AND ROMANCE.
Apologia - Early Misfortunes of Management - Stage Debut in Schoolboy Dramatics - St. Mark's, Chelsea - The School's Champion Pugilist - The Sale of Jam-Rolls - Student Days with W. H. Trood - An Artist of Parts - A Fateful Night at the Theatre - The Schoolboy and the Actress - A Firm Hand With a Rival - Three Months' Truancy - Our Marriage and Our Honeymoon in a Hansom - The Dominie and the Married Man - First Engagement with D'Oyly Carte - Dilemma of a Sister and Brother.
EIGHT-AND-THIRTY years on the stage!
Looking back over so long a period, memory runs riot with a thousand remembrances of dark days and brighter, and of times of hardship which, in their own way, were not devoid of happiness. It has been my good fortune to own many valued friendships, and it is to my friends that the credit or the guilt, as it may happen to be, of inspiring me to begin this venture belongs. Not once, but many times, I have been asked "Why don't you write your reminiscences, Lytton?" The late Lord Fisher strongly urged me to write them when I paid my last visit to his home a few months before he passed to the Great Beyond. So great was my respect for Lord Fisher, one of the noblest Englishmen of our age, that I felt bound to adopt his suggestion, and it is thus partly in homage to his sterling qualities and gifts that I begin now to reveal these "Secrets of a Savoyard." This much let me say at the very beginning. Naught that is written here will be "set down in malice." Searchers of those too numerous chronicles of scandal will look here for spicy tit-bits in vain. For what it is worth this is the record of one who has lived a happy life, whose vocation it has been to minister to the public's enjoyment, and whose outlook has inevitably been happily coloured by such a long association with the gladsome operas of the old Savoy.
I cannot say that my love of the footlights was inherited, but at least it began to show itself at a very early age. One of my earliest recollections is concerned with a little diversion at the village home of my guardian. No doubt my older readers will remember the old gallanty shows which were in vogue some forty or fifty years ago. Explained briefly, these were contrived by use of a number of cardboard figures which, with the aid of a candle, were reflected on to a white sheet, and which could be manipulated to provide one's audience with a rather primitive form of enjoyment. Well, I do not recall where I had been to get the idea, but I decided to have a gallanty show at the bottom of the garden, and to invite the public's patronage. This ranks as my first venture in managerial responsibility. I rigged up a tent - a small and jerry-built contrivance it was - and an announcement of the forthcoming entertainment in my bold schoolboy's hand was pasted on to the outer wall of the garden. The charges for admission were original. Stalls were to be purchased with an apple, lesser seats with a handful of chocolates or nuts, while a few sweets would secure admission to the pit. The boys of the village, having read the notice, turned up and paid their nuts and sweets in accordance with the advertised tariff, but the sad fact has to be related that the show did not please them at all, and by summarily pulling up the pole they brought the tent and the entertainment to grief. In other words, I "got the bird." Nor can I say that was the end of the tragedy. Under threats I had to repay all that the box-office had taken, and as most of the lads claimed more than they had actually given, the stock of nuts and sweets was insufficient to meet the liabilities. So in the cause of art I found myself thus early in life in bankruptcy! My partner in the enterprise proved to be a broken reed, for when the roughs of the village got busy he showed a clean pair of heels and left me alone with the mob and the wreckage.
Seeing that this is an actor's narrative, I ought to place on record at once that my first appearance on any stage was in schoolboy dramatics in connection with St. Mark's College, Chelsea. Of St. Mark's I shall have much to say. I played the title rôle in "Boots at the Swan." Except that I enjoyed being the cheeky little hotel "Boots" and fancied myself not a little in my striped waistcoat and green apron, I don't remember whether my performance was held to be successful or not, but unconsciously the experience did give me a mental twist towards the stage.
St. Mark's was regarded in those times - and I am glad to know is still regarded - as an excellent school for young gentlemen. But certainly my name was never numbered amongst the brightest educational products of that academy. What claim I had to fame was in an entirely different sphere. I was the school's champion Pugilist! In those days I simply revelled in fighting. A day without a scrap was a day hardly worth living. Occasionally the older lads thought it good sport to tell the newcomers what an unholy terror they would be up against, when they met Lytton. In most cases this was said with such vivid embellishments that the youngsters got a heart-sinking feeling. But there was one lad who was more adroit. He argued that it was all very well for the school champion to fight surrounded by and cheered on by his friends, but that this must put the challenge at a distinct disadvantage. He also considered that no harm would be done if he measured up this much-boomed light-weight before the time came for him to stand up publicly as his antagonist. Luring me, therefore, into a quiet corner one day, he commanded me in so many words to "put 'em up." Now, while it is the privilege of a champion to name his own terms and conditions, it really was too much to tolerate the pretensions of such an impudent upstart. So we set to in earnest, and very speedily the new boy was giving me some of his best - a straight left timed to the moment - and it needed only two such lefts to make me oblivious of time altogether. Certainly he succeeded in instilling into my mind a decided respect for his prowess.
Not being too richly endowed with pocket money, I conceived the idea that to set up in business as the school pastrycook would serve a "long-felt want." Strictly cash terms were demanded. Each day I bought a number of rolls at ½d. each and a pot of jam for 4½d. With these I retailed slices of most appetising bread and jam at a penny a time and made an excellent profit. If the truth must be told the smaller boys got no more than a smear of jam on their bread and the bigger boys rather more than their share, but on the average it worked out fairly well, and the juniors had sufficient discretion not to complain.
If I had any bent in those days - apart from fighting and selling jam rolls - it was in the direction of painting. For water-colour sketches I had a certain aptitude, and painting remains one of my hobbies, taking only second place to my enthusiasm for golf. For tuition I went to W. H. Trood at his studio in Chelsea. Trood in his time was an artist of parts. He had a fine sense of composition and painted many beautiful pictures. If he had not been deaf and dumb he would have made a great actor, for his gift of facial expression was extraordinary. Clubmen are familiar with a well-known set of five action photographs representing a convivial card-player who has gone "nap." Trood was the subject of those photographs.
For some time I attended St. Mark's during the day and went to the studio each evening. I realised very early that there was no money in painting and that it was of little use as a profession. We students were a merry band, and though we had little money, we made the most of what we had to spend. Our studio was only a garret, and it was a common thing for each of us to buy a tough steak for no more than fourpence, grill it with a fork over the meagre fire, and make it serve as our one substantial meal for many hours. It was a Bohemian existence and I have remained a Bohemian ever since.
Trood and I were more than master and pupil, we were, if not brothers, then at least uncle and nephew. From time to time we contrived to visit the theatre, for although he could not hear, he loved to study the colour effects on the stage, and had an uncanny talent for following the course of the plot. And one of these nights out was destined to be most fateful for me in my future career. We had gone together into the gallery at the Avenue Theatre (now the Playhouse). The attraction was a French opera-bouffe called "Olivette." And I must confess that my susceptible heart was at once smitten with the charms of a young lady who was playing one of the subsidiary parts. From that moment the play to me was not the thing. Eyes and thoughts were concentrated on that slim, winsome little figure, and I remember that at school the following day the sale of jam rolls was pushed with redoubled vigour in order that I might have the wherewithal to go to the theatre and see my charmer again.
I am getting on delicate ground, but the story is well worth the telling. It was clear I could not go on worshipping my fair divinity afar from the "gods." We must make each other's acquaintance. So to Miss Louie Henri I addressed a most courteous note, paying her some exquisite compliments, and inviting her to meet her unknown admirer at the stage door after the performance one night. And my invitation was accepted. I ought to mention here that I was then scarcely seventeen years of age. Louie Henri, as it afterwards transpired, was the same.
Well, I bedecked myself in my best and marched off in good time to the trysting place at the stage door. I spent my last sou on a fine box of chocolates. Nothing I could do was to be left undone to make the conquest complete. But first there came a surprise. Another St. Mark's boy was at the stage door already. He, too, had a box of chocolates, and it was bigger than mine.
"Who are those for?" I demanded. The tone of my voice must have been forbidding I already had my suspicions.
"Louie Henri," answered the lad. Seemingly he thought it wise to be truthful.
I had a rival! Crises of this kind have to be met with vigour and thoroughness.
"Give them to me," I insisted, "and hook it." The command was terrible in its severity. More than that, I was not the school's champion light-weight for nothing. The rival almost threw the chocolates into my hands and vanished like lightning. When Louie came out there I was with a double load of offerings. She was sensibly impressed.
From time to time further delightful meetings took place. Luckily the jam roll trade was flourishing, and so it was seldom the youthful swain met his lady-love empty-handed. Only once did the rival attempt to steal a march on me again. I discovered him loitering round the stage door, but when he saw my fists in a business-like attitude, he apparently realised that discretion was the better part of valour and bolted into the night. All of which proves anew that "faint heart never won fair lady."
Louie and I got on famously together, and although we were but children it was not long before we had decided to become engaged. The course of true love was complicated by the fact that while I was at St. Mark's in the daytime she at night had to play her part in "Olivette". So it occurred to me that the only thing was to give up school. I accordingly wrote a letter, in my guardian's name, saying that I was being taken away from St. Mark's for a three-months' holiday, and posted it to the headmaster at Chelsea. Then followed the rapture of sweetheart days. Our pleasures were few - there were no funds for more than an occasional ride on a 'bus - but into the intimacies of those blissful times there is no need to enter.
We were married late in 1883 at St. Mary's, Kensington. Louie and I certainly never realised the responsibilities of married life, and love's young dream was not spoiled by anxious reflections about the problem of ways and means, as may be gathered from the fact that our funds were exhausted on the very day of the marriage. I remember that, after the fees at church had been paid, the cash at our disposal amounted to eighteen-pence. The question then was how far this would take us in the matter of a honeymoon. Strolling into Kensington Gardens, we decided that we would spend it on the thrills of a ride in a hansom-cab, and the driver was instructed to take us as far as he could, for eighteen-pence. The journey was not at all long. I rather think that if the cabby had known the romantic and adventurous couple he had picked up as fares he would have been sport enough to give us a more generous trip.
Our plan of action after this honeymoon in a hansom had already been decided upon. My wife went to the theatre for the evening performance. I, on my part, had arranged to go back to school and put the best face on things that was possible. During my absence, of course, it had become known that my guardian's letter was a deception and that my three months' care-free existence was truancy. Where I had been the headmaster did not know. What I had done he knew even less. But the delinquency was one which, in the interest of school discipline, had to be visited with extreme severity. The Dominie took me before the class and commenced to use the birch with well-applied vigour.
When at the mature age of seventeen one is made a public exhibition of one can have a very acute sense of injured dignity. The rod descended heavily.
"Stop it!" I shouted. "You can't thrash me like this. Do you know what you are doing? You're thrashing a married man!"
"You a married man! You lie!" The birching, bad as it had been, was redoubled in intensity. The master declared that he would teach me a lesson for lying.
"But I am a married man," I yelled. "I was married yesterday."
But even the dawn of truth meant no reprieve. The explanation put the offence in a still more lurid light. It was bad enough to tell a lie, but a good deal worse to get married, and the headmaster whacked me all the more severely as an awful example to the rest of the boys.
Following the thrashing, I enjoyed a fleeting notoriety in the eyes of my school mates, who crowded round to see the interesting matrimonial specimen. "Look who's married!" they shouted. "What's it like?" I'm afraid at the moment that, smarting under the rod, the joys of married life seemed to me to be, as Mark Twain would say, "greatly exaggerated." And worse was to come. Next day the master, considering my knowledge of life made me too black a reprobate to remain in his school any longer, terminated my career as a pupil. For a married man to be in one of the lower classes was too much of an absurdity. Here was a pretty how-d'ye-do! A bridegroom in sad disgrace, and finding himself on the day after his marriage with no work, no prospects, no anything! Louie it was who came to the rescue. "Princess Ida" had just been produced at the Savoy, and she had been engaged for chorus work in the company which was being sent out on a provincial tour, commencing at Glasgow. My wife contrived to see Mr. Carte, and she faithfully followed the strategy that had been decided upon. Seeing that theatrical managers were understood to dislike married couples in companies on tour, she was to ask him whether he would engage her brother for the tour, pointing out that he had a good voice and was "fairly good looking." The upshot was that I was commanded to wait on Mr. Carte. Later in life I came to know him well and to receive many a kindness from him, but this first interview remains in my mind to this day, because it was destined to put my foot on the first rung of the theatrical ladder.
"Not much of a voice," was the conductor's comment - not a very flattering compliment, by the way, to one who had been for a long time solo boy in the choir of St. Philip's, Kensington. "never mind," replied Mr. Carte; "he will do as understudy for David Fisher as King Gama." And as chorister and understudy I was engaged. Each of us was to have £2 a week, and in view of our circumstances the money was not merely welcome, but princely. Our troubles seemed to have vanished for ever.
One of our difficulties was that, having entered the company as brother and sister, that pretty fiction had to be kept up, and for a devoted newly-married couple that was not very easy. For a brother my attentiveness was almost amusing. The rôle was also sometimes embarrassing. Louie's charms quickly captivated a member of the company who afterwards rose very high in the profession - it would hardly be fair to give his identity away! - and one night he gave me a broad hint that my dutiful watchfulness was carried too far.
"Leave her to me," he whispered, affably. When I told him I had promised mother I would not leave her, or some such story, a compromise was arranged whereby after the show, when we were going home, I should drop back and give him the opportunity for playing the "gallant." To have refused would have aroused suspicions that might have led to the discovery of our secret. So like Jack Point, I had to walk behind while the other fellow escorted my bride and paid her pretty compliments. It seemed less of a joke at the time than it does to-day.
Naturally, the little bubble was bound to explode before long, and it exploded when everything seemed to be going splendidly. It happened when one of the assistant managers, who also admired my wife, somehow induced us to invite him to visit our "digs."
"Nice rooms, these," he commented, taking them in at a glance. "What do you pay?"
"Only sixteen shillings? Three rooms for sixteen shillings!"
"No! Only two --." The fatal slip! Truth at last had to out.
We told him that we had been afraid that, if we had said we were man and wife, we should not have got the engagement, and we were in too much of a dilemma to be sticklers for accuracy. Our "marriage lines" were then and there produced.
"Well," said the manager, "you are remarkably alike; no wonder you easily passed for brother and sister." That, in fact, was true. Our marriage, he went on to tell us, would not have been a handicap in the D'Oyly Carte Company. Most managers, he said, did not care for husband and wife to travel together - but that was not the case with Mr. D'Oyly Carte.
The news quickly spread through the company, and on every hand we received congratulations. Only one of our colleagues considered that he had a grievance. He was the usurper who had insisted that I should allow him to escort my alleged sister from the theatre to our lodgings. "What a fool you've made of me," he complained. "Why, I was going to propose! I did think she would make such a nice little wife!"
Long after this it was Mr. Carte's custom, when making enquiries as to my wife, to say dryly, "And how's your sister, Lytton?" Similarly, whenever he spoke to my wife, there was invariably a twinkle in his eye whenever he asked after the welfare and whereabouts of her "brother."
Page created 18 July 2004