THE THEATRICAL ‘BUS DRIVER
“Will any gentleman get outside to ‘blige a lady?” asked the conductor. I have always regarded this question with a certain amount of distrust and suspicion, for I have felt that I am really obliging the conductor; but upon this occasion I complied with the request, and “got outside to ‘blige a lady.”
I found myself on the box-seat, the only occupant with the coachman, the hero of this little story. “Kiver it over yer knees,” he said, giving me the strap of the apron, “for it’s rather chilly to-night, sir.” I did so, lighted my pipe, and endeavoured to make myself as comfortable as I could under the circumstances, for it was raining fast.
As we drove past the gas-lamps I noticed that the driver looked at me rather curiously, and as he pulled up either to let down or take up a passenger, he leaned over towards me and, lowering his voice to a mysterious whisper, said: “You’ll excuse me, you’ll excuse me, sir, but ain’t you wot they calls one o’ the perfeshun?” I confessed that such was the case.
“Ah!” said he, ” I thought you wuz. I’m wonderful fond o’ the perfeshun myself, sir, wonderful fond. I takes, as you may say, a reg’lar interest in it, and I’ll tell yer why, sir. You see, sir, my uncle, my mother’s brother, kept a theayter, leastways it warn’t ‘xacly a theayter, but wot they calls a gaff, down the Whitechapel Road, about thirty-four year ago, and afore I tuke to drivin’ I used to be with this ‘ere uncle a ‘elpin’ ‘im in the show. Mind yer, I didn’t do no actin’,” and he chuckled to himself. “Lor’ bless you, no, I warn’t no good at that, I was too nervous. My business consisted of ringing up the curtain and ringing it down agin; and werry orfen I used to hev to do it, for we used to have three shows a night. There was one piece as tuke my fancy special. There warn’t no chatter in it, but it was what they calls a tabbler wax or tabbler something, sir.”
“That’s it, sir, tabbler wewong, sir. I knowed it was a furrin’ word. It was a piece where three young females comes on all dressed in white, when on comes a chap dressed up with a lot o’ roses and flowers round ‘is ‘ed—they warn’t real, sir—paper ‘uns; a sheepskin tied round ‘is lines, and his nose werry red. He was a bloke as was fond o’ ‘is drop o’ somethin’ short, he was. He was carryin’ what they calls a goblet in ‘is ‘and, and he offers these ‘ere young females a drink out of this ‘ere mug, but they “wouldn’t ‘ev nothin’ to say to him, they was reg’lar teetotalers. I forget the name of the party, my memory ain’t so good as it was, but I think they calls it something like the name o’ the chap who puts ‘is money on hosses, sir. Backer or somethin’.”
I suggested Bacchus.
“That’s it,” said he, with a shout of delight; “Backus and the three Graces, sir, or somethin’ like that. Lor” bless yer soul, sir! fond o’ the perfeshun?—I should think I am. Why there ain’t a night as I gets off this ‘ere work as me and my old woman don’t go to see some piece or other. Lor” bless yer soul, sir! I remember seeing old Phelps” (he called it “Phelips “; and here I must remark that my friend, the driver spoke in a familiar—a very familiar—way of the “perfeshun” for which he professed to have such a great regard). “I remember seeing him in a piece in Droory Lane, sir. It wuz a werry gloomy piece, but werry good. It wuz wrote by that there lord who wuz rayther a goer in his time, sir—I b’lieve Lord Byron. In this ‘ere piece that Phelips— ‘Manfried,’ I think it wuz called, sir—used to go to the top of the mountain and slyoquises to himself, like; werry good piece it wuz, sir—beautiful langwidge. Often thinks about it when I’m sittin’ on this ‘ere seat, and I always finds somethin’ noo in it, sir. I took my old woman to see it, she was pleased too.”
He announced this fact as a sort of confirmation of his own idea— that there was no doubt that the piece was good, if his old woman agreed with him on the subject.
“It’s wonderful what a lot of clever people there is about. Why I was readin’ a harticle the other day in ‘The Daily Telegrarf,’ and I see some remarks as pleased me very much. Well, the follerin’ Saturday night I gets off, and I goes to the Surrey to see a play, and it wus a Roman piece, sir, where they wears toggers, and things like that—long white dresses. It wuz a piece where two blokes ‘as a row in the marketplace ” (“Julius Caesar”), “and, bless my ‘art, if they didn’t go through all the words as I see in the paper! Wonderful lot o’ learnin’ about, sir, and wonderful things is plays—leastways to me. There’s another reason, sir, that I’m fond o’ the perfeshun,” and the old man lowered his voice and coughed once or twice before he went on again.
“You see, sir, me and my old woman ‘ad been married for some time, and we ‘ad two children—two boys—and we was wonderful wishful for a little gal. Not that I’ve a word to say agin the boys, they wuz good enuff for anybody, my boys wuz, and werry good to their old father they have been; but as I wuz a-sayin’, we wuz wonderful wishful for a gal, and at last she comes, sir—our little Ally, a blue-eyed fair-‘aired little thing, as ever you saw, sir. You wouldn’t b’lieve, to look at me, that I could her ‘ad such a darter, for I ain’t ‘ansome. Well, when she wuz about seven or eight years old, I ‘ad a job to take a pleasure party down to ‘Ampton Court; comin’ back, sir, a werry ‘eavy storm come on, and I got soaked, and about four or five days after it, sir, I wuz laid up with the roomatick fever, and uncommon bad I wuz, too, reg’lar dilurus, orf me ‘ead; and when I got better, the missus wuz a sittin’ by my bedside a-holdin’ me ‘and, and she ees, ‘Jim,’ she ses to me —that’s my name, sir, Jim. And she ses, ‘Jim, how would you like our little Ally to be a fairy?’ ‘Fairy!’ I ses. ‘Yes,’ ses she, ‘in a pantomime.’ ‘No, Lizzie,’ I ses, for I thought o’ the cold nights, and I didn’t like the hidear of the blue-eyed little darlin’ comin’ out of the ‘ot theayter into the cold. But times wuz bad, and money wuz short; so the next mornin’ she takes little Ally down^to the theayter—the Lane, sir— and she comes back in about two hours’ time, and says, ‘Ally’s engaged, she’s to be a little fairy.’ I felt uncomfortable like, and yet a bit proud, sir, to think my little gal was in the perfeshun. I often, now and then, as ye may say, curse myself for that bit of pride, sir, for it pretty nearly broke my ‘art. But, there, God knows wot’s best for us, and it don’t do for me to complain. Well, to make a long story short, sir, I went back to work, and got a job a’ drivin’, and every night, when I used to finish, I used to ‘urry off to the theayter to fetch Ally; and one night I noticed as she didn’t run up to me, eager like, aa she used to do. I ses, ‘Ally, what’s the matter?’ and her anser seemed to ‘it me, and give me a sharp pain underneath my westkit, sir. ‘I don’t feel well, dad,’ she said, ‘my face is burnin’, and my ‘ead feels, oh so big.’ I took her up in my arms and ‘urried off ‘ome across the bridge with her as fast as I could go, and me and my old woman put her to bed. I went for a doctor, but afore mornin’ my little gal was in a ragin’ fever.
“Well, sir, I was obliged to go off to work next mornin’, and the day seemed terrible long, and directly I finished my job I used to ‘urry orf ‘ome to my little Ally, and the thing as pleased her most was picture of pantomimes and theaytres; and money being a bit short, I’ll tell you what I used to do: on my way ‘ome I used to tear the pictur’ advertisements with the pantomime off the walls (and uncommon rough I was on them advertisements), to take ’em ‘ome to my little gal, and as I used to ‘urry upstairs (for though we was low in pocket we was high in the attic), I’d listen for her voices ‘Mother,’ she used to say, ‘I hope father’s got another pictur’ for me,’ and when I opened the door, her eyes used to stare out of her head eager like to see what sort of a pictur’ I’d brought her.
“She lay ill like that for weeks, sir, and I used to notice (and it give me a pain over my heart, as if I’d draw this ‘ere ‘bus over it) that her eyes seemed to get bigger and her face smaller and smaller.
“One night, sir, I ‘urried ‘ome, for I had a kind o’ feelin’ on me all day that somethin’ was a-goin’ to ‘appen, and as I went upstairs, for the first time I didn’t hear my Ally’s voice—I felt myself hang back a bit as I opened the door. ‘How’s my __?’
‘Hush,’ my wife said, ‘Ally’s sleepin’.’ I walked up to her bed, and I suppose the noise roused her a bit, for she opened her eyes and looked at me. ‘I ain’t got no picture to-night, Ally.’ She didn’t say nothink, only smiled, and put up her little thin hand and stroked my face. ‘Never mind, daddy dear,’ she said at last, in a little feeble voice, ‘I don’t think I shall want any more pantomime pictures. I’ve had such a lovely dream, daddy, just like a transformation scene at a theayter, only more beautifuler ladies with long white dresses and wings like on their shoulders. I’m glad you’ve come home, daddy, for the ladies seemed to want to take me up in the clouds, like they do in the pantomimes, and I’m—oh—so glad you’ve come! You won’t have to wait for me out in the wet at the stage-door any more, daddy.’ And then she seemed to go a bit queer in her head, and talked about the theayter. She lay quiet for a short time, then gave a kind o’ start, raised herself up and said, ‘Father, they’ve come for me,’ stroked my face with her hand, put her little head down on my shoulder, sir, went off to sleep, never to wake no more.”
And as we passed the lamps I saw the tears rolling down the cheeks of my friend the driver; and, to tell the truth, I felt very choky myself.
“Good-night,” I said, as I shook hands with the old fellow.
“Good-night, sir,” he answered, gazing straight in front of him. I got down without another word, for I felt that “his eyes were with his heart, and that was far away.”
The Theatre, A Monthly Review and Magazine Vol. 1, 1 November 1881: pp. 265-68
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: After a moment to collect herself, to avoid getting “choky,” Mrs Daffodil will be Relentlessly Informative and explain that a “Gaff” might be a freak show (what the Americans call a “side-show” or it might be a cheap theatre for the working-class, especially a musical one. The so-called “Penny Gaff Theatre,” not unlike the theatres of Shakespeare’s time, played to the Pit.
At the first penny gaff to which I came in the London Road, there was the usual crowd of working people and unemployed who are soon to be civilized and elevated to a private-theatricals standard by Beaumont trustees, and according to Mr. Besant, but who as yet have not risen above the penny-gaff level. Talking to them from steps that served as a platform was a Mephistopheles, who, like Mr. Irving, had borrowed the red dress, cock’s feather, and sword from the puppet costumer, and, unlike him, but perhaps more sensibly, had retained the moustache and forked beard of the operatic Mephisto. As in the old drama, Mephistopheles laid a wager in the court of Heaven before the real play began, so his penny-gaff successor bargained with the people before the curtain was drawn. “What’ll you see insoide, gen’lemen?” he cried; “people suspended in midair! Yes, gen’lemen. At other places a guinea’s charged, and people’s wisibly supported by one stick. But ‘ere all sticks is taken away and I’m only chargin’ you a pinny. We don’t ask a shillin’, gen’lemen, but only a pinny. What I promises outsoide, I performs in. My show is sciointifik and respectable, and a ten minutes’ respectable and sciointifik show’s better’n a hour’s rot, which is all you gets in some of your guinea theatres. Your own consciences’Il prompt you to recommen’ my show!” I give his patter, since it points out what he considered to be the principal feature of his performance.
Child labour laws did not bar children from working at all hours on the stage. As an 1862 report on the English theatrical economy remarks: “It is a well-known fact that little boys and girls of six and seven years often support a whole family by their slender earnings.”
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.