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Chapter 9

MRS. JOSEPH PORTER

Most extensive were the preparations at Rose Villa, Clapham Rise,
in the occupation of Mr. Gattleton (a stock-broker in especially
comfortable circumstances), and great was the anxiety of Mr.
Gattleton's interesting family, as the day fixed for the
representation of the Private Play which had been 'many months in
preparation,' approached. The whole family was infected with the
mania for Private Theatricals; the house, usually so clean and
tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton's expressive description,
'regularly turned out o' windows;' the large dining-room,
dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments, presented a strange
jumble of flats, flies, wings, lamps, bridges, clouds, thunder and
lightning, festoons and flowers, daggers and foil, and various
other messes in theatrical slang included under the comprehensive
name of 'properties.' The bedrooms were crowded with scenery, the
kitchen was occupied by carpenters. Rehearsals took place every
other night in the drawing-room, and every sofa in the house was
more or less damaged by the perseverance and spirit with which Mr.
Sempronius Gattleton, and Miss Lucina, rehearsed the smothering
scene in 'Othello'--it having been determined that that tragedy
should form the first portion of the evening's entertainments.

'When we're a LEETLE more perfect, I think it will go admirably,'
said Mr. Sempronius, addressing his corps dramatique, at the
conclusion of the hundred and fiftieth rehearsal. In consideration
of his sustaining the trifling inconvenience of bearing all the
expenses of the play, Mr. Sempronius had been, in the most handsome
manner, unanimously elected stage-manager. 'Evans,' continued Mr.
Gattleton, the younger, addressing a tall, thin, pale young
gentleman, with extensive whiskers--'Evans, you play Roderigo
beautifully.'

'Beautifully,' echoed the three Miss Gattletons; for Mr. Evans was
pronounced by all his lady friends to be 'quite a dear.' He looked
so interesting, and had such lovely whiskers: to say nothing of
his talent for writing verses in albums and playing the flute!
Roderigo simpered and bowed.

'But I think,' added the manager, 'you are hardly perfect in the--
fall--in the fencing-scene, where you are--you understand?'

'It's very difficult,' said Mr. Evans, thoughtfully; 'I've fallen
about, a good deal, in our counting-house lately, for practice,
only I find it hurts one so. Being obliged to fall backward you
see, it bruises one's head a good deal.'

'But you must take care you don't knock a wing down,' said Mr.
Gattleton, the elder, who had been appointed prompter, and who took
as much interest in the play as the youngest of the company. 'The
stage is very narrow, you know.'

'Oh! don't be afraid,' said Mr. Evans, with a very self-satisfied
air; 'I shall fall with my head "off," and then I can't do any
harm.'

'But, egad,' said the manager, rubbing his hands, 'we shall make a
decided hit in "Masaniello." Harleigh sings that music admirably.'

Everybody echoed the sentiment. Mr. Harleigh smiled, and looked
foolish--not an unusual thing with him--hummed' Behold how
brightly breaks the morning,' and blushed as red as the fisherman's
nightcap he was trying on.

'Let's see,' resumed the manager, telling the number on his
fingers, 'we shall have three dancing female peasants, besides
Fenella, and four fishermen. Then, there's our man Tom; he can
have a pair of ducks of mine, and a check shirt of Bob's, and a red
nightcap, and he'll do for another--that's five. In the choruses,
of course, we can sing at the sides; and in the market-scene we can
walk about in cloaks and things. When the revolt takes place, Tom
must keep rushing in on one side and out on the other, with a
pickaxe, as fast as he can. The effect will be electrical; it will
look exactly as if there were an immense number of 'em. And in the
eruption-scene we must burn the red fire, and upset the tea-trays,
and make all sorts of noises--and it's sure to do.'

'Sure! sure!' cried all the performers una voce--and away hurried
Mr. Sempronius Gattleton to wash the burnt cork off his face, and
superintend the 'setting up' of some of the amateur-painted, but
never-sufficiently-to-be-admired, scenery.

Mrs. Gattleton was a kind, good-tempered, vulgar soul, exceedingly
fond of her husband and children, and entertaining only three
dislikes. In the first place, she had a natural antipathy to
anybody else's unmarried daughters; in the second, she was in
bodily fear of anything in the shape of ridicule; lastly--almost a
necessary consequence of this feeling--she regarded, with feelings
of the utmost horror, one Mrs. Joseph Porter over the way.
However, the good folks of Clapham and its vicinity stood very much
in awe of scandal and sarcasm; and thus Mrs. Joseph Porter was
courted, and flattered, and caressed, and invited, for much the
same reason that induces a poor author, without a farthing in his
pocket, to behave with extraordinary civility to a twopenny
postman.

'Never mind, ma,' said Miss Emma Porter, in colloquy with her
respected relative, and trying to look unconcerned; 'if they had
invited me, you know that neither you nor pa would have allowed me
to take part in such an exhibition.'

'Just what I should have thought from your high sense of
propriety,' returned the mother. 'I am glad to see, Emma, you know
how to designate the proceeding.' Miss P., by-the-bye, had only
the week before made 'an exhibition' of herself for four days,
behind a counter at a fancy fair, to all and every of her Majesty's
liege subjects who were disposed to pay a shilling each for the
privilege of seeing some four dozen girls flirting with strangers,
and playing at shop.

'There!' said Mrs. Porter, looking out of window; 'there are two
rounds of beef and a ham going in--clearly for sandwiches; and
Thomas, the pastry-cook, says, there have been twelve dozen tarts
ordered, besides blancmange and jellies. Upon my word! think of
the Miss Gattletons in fancy dresses, too!'

'Oh, it's too ridiculous!' said Miss Porter, hysterically.

'I'll manage to put them a little out of conceit with the business,
however,' said Mrs. Porter; and out she went on her charitable
errand.

'Well, my dear Mrs. Gattleton,' said Mrs. Joseph Porter, after they
had been closeted for some time, and when, by dint of indefatigable
pumping, she had managed to extract all the news about the play,
'well, my dear, people may say what they please; indeed we know
they will, for some folks are SO ill-natured. Ah, my dear Miss
Lucina, how d'ye do? I was just telling your mamma that I have
heard it said, that--'

'What?'

'Mrs. Porter is alluding to the play, my dear,' said Mrs.
Gattleton; 'she was, I am sorry to say, just informing me that--'

'Oh, now pray don't mention it,' interrupted Mrs. Porter; 'it's
most absurd--quite as absurd as young What's-his-name saying he
wondered how Miss Caroline, with such a foot and ankle, could have
the vanity to play Fenella.'

'Highly impertinent, whoever said it,' said Mrs. Gattleton,
bridling up.

'Certainly, my dear,' chimed in the delighted Mrs. Porter; 'most
undoubtedly! Because, as I said, if Miss Caroline DOES play
Fenella, it doesn't follow, as a matter of course, that she should
think she has a pretty foot;--and then--such puppies as these young
men are--he had the impudence to say, that--'

How far the amiable Mrs. Porter might have succeeded in her
pleasant purpose, it is impossible to say, had not the entrance of
Mr. Thomas Balderstone, Mrs. Gattleton's brother, familiarly called
in the family 'Uncle Tom,' changed the course of conversation, and
suggested to her mind an excellent plan of operation on the evening
of the play.

Uncle Tom was very rich, and exceedingly fond of his nephews and
nieces: as a matter of course, therefore, he was an object of
great importance in his own family. He was one of the best-hearted
men in existence: always in a good temper, and always talking. It
was his boast that he wore top-boots on all occasions, and had
never worn a black silk neckerchief; and it was his pride that he
remembered all the principal plays of Shakspeare from beginning to
end--and so he did. The result of this parrot-like accomplishment
was, that he was not only perpetually quoting himself, but that he
could never sit by, and hear a misquotation from the 'Swan of Avon'
without setting the unfortunate delinquent right. He was also
something of a wag; never missed an opportunity of saying what he
considered a good thing, and invariably laughed until he cried at
anything that appeared to him mirth-moving or ridiculous.

'Well, girls!' said Uncle Tom, after the preparatory ceremony of
kissing and how-d'ye-do-ing had been gone through--'how d'ye get
on? Know your parts, eh?--Lucina, my dear, act II., scene I--
place, left-cue--"Unknown fate,"--What's next, eh?--Go on--"The
Heavens--"'

'Oh, yes,' said Miss Lucina, 'I recollect -


"The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow!"'


'Make a pause here and there,' said the old gentleman, who was a
great critic. '"But that our loves and comforts should increase"--
emphasis on the last syllable, "crease,"--loud "even,"--one, two,
three, four; then loud again, "as our days do grow;" emphasis on
DAYS. That's the way, my dear; trust to your uncle for emphasis.
Ah! Sem, my boy, how are you?'

'Very well, thankee, uncle,' returned Mr. Sempronius, who had just
appeared, looking something like a ringdove, with a small circle
round each eye: the result of his constant corking. 'Of course we
see you on Thursday.'

'Of course, of course, my dear boy.'

'What a pity it is your nephew didn't think of making you prompter,
Mr. Balderstone!' whispered Mrs. Joseph Porter; 'you would have
been invaluable.'

'Well, I flatter myself, I SHOULD have been tolerably up to the
thing,' responded Uncle Tom.

'I must bespeak sitting next you on the night,' resumed Mrs.
Porter; 'and then, if our dear young friends here, should be at all
wrong, you will be able to enlighten me. I shall be so
interested.'

'I am sure I shall be most happy to give you any assistance in my
power'

'Mind, it's a bargain.'

'Certainly.'

'I don't know how it is,' said Mrs. Gattleton to her daughters, as
they were sitting round the fire in the evening, looking over their
parts, 'but I really very much wish Mrs. Joseph Porter wasn't
coming on Thursday. I am sure she's scheming something.'

'She can't make us ridiculous, however,' observed Mr. Sempronius
Gattleton, haughtily.

The long-looked-for Thursday arrived in due course, and brought
with it, as Mr. Gattleton, senior, philosophically observed, 'no
disappointments, to speak of.' True, it was yet a matter of doubt
whether Cassio would be enabled to get into the dress which had
been sent for him from the masquerade warehouse. It was equally
uncertain whether the principal female singer would be sufficiently
recovered from the influenza to make her appearance; Mr. Harleigh,
the Masaniello of the night, was hoarse, and rather unwell, in
consequence of the great quantity of lemon and sugar-candy he had
eaten to improve his voice; and two flutes and a violoncello had
pleaded severe colds. What of that? the audience were all coming.
Everybody knew his part: the dresses were covered with tinsel and
spangles; the white plumes looked beautiful; Mr. Evans had
practised falling until he was bruised from head to foot and quite
perfect; Iago was sure that, in the stabbing-scene, he should make
'a decided hit.' A self-taught deaf gentleman, who had kindly
offered to bring his flute, would be a most valuable addition to
the orchestra; Miss Jenkins's talent for the piano was too well
known to be doubted for an instant; Mr. Cape had practised the
violin accompaniment with her frequently; and Mr. Brown, who had
kindly undertaken, at a few hours' notice, to bring his
violoncello, would, no doubt, manage extremely well.

Seven o'clock came, and so did the audience; all the rank and
fashion of Clapham and its vicinity was fast filling the theatre.
There were the Smiths, the Gubbinses, the Nixons, the Dixons, the
Hicksons, people with all sorts of names, two aldermen, a sheriff
in perspective, Sir Thomas Glumper (who had been knighted in the
last reign for carrying up an address on somebody's escaping from
nothing); and last, not least, there were Mrs. Joseph Porter and
Uncle Tom, seated in the centre of the third row from the stage;
Mrs. P. amusing Uncle Tom with all sorts of stories, and Uncle Tom
amusing every one else by laughing most immoderately.

Ting, ting, ting! went the prompter's bell at eight o'clock
precisely, and dash went the orchestra into the overture to 'The
Men of Prometheus.' The pianoforte player hammered away with
laudable perseverance; and the violoncello, which struck in at
intervals, 'sounded very well, considering.' The unfortunate
individual, however, who had undertaken to play the flute
accompaniment 'at sight,' found, from fatal experience, the perfect
truth of the old adage, 'ought of sight, out of mind;' for being
very near-sighted, and being placed at a considerable distance from
his music-book, all he had an opportunity of doing was to play a
bar now and then in the wrong place, and put the other performers
out. It is, however, but justice to Mr. Brown to say that he did
this to admiration. The overture, in fact, was not unlike a race
between the different instruments; the piano came in first by
several bars, and the violoncello next, quite distancing the poor
flute; for the deaf gentleman TOO-TOO'D away, quite unconscious
that he was at all wrong, until apprised, by the applause of the
audience, that the overture was concluded. A considerable bustle
and shuffling of feet was then heard upon the stage, accompanied by
whispers of 'Here's a pretty go!--what's to be done?' &c. The
audience applauded again, by way of raising the spirits of the
performers; and then Mr. Sempronius desired the prompter, in a very
audible voice, to 'clear the stage, and ring up.'

Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. Everybody sat down; the
curtain shook; rose sufficiently high to display several pair of
yellow boots paddling about; and there remained.

Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. The curtain was violently
convulsed, but rose no higher; the audience tittered; Mrs. Porter
looked at Uncle Tom; Uncle Tom looked at everybody, rubbing his
hands, and laughing with perfect rapture. After as much ringing
with the little bell as a muffin-boy would make in going down a
tolerably long street, and a vast deal of whispering, hammering,
and calling for nails and cord, the curtain at length rose, and
discovered Mr. Sempronius Gattleton solus, and decked for Othello.
After three distinct rounds of applause, during which Mr.
Sempronius applied his right hand to his left breast, and bowed in
the most approved manner, the manager advanced and said:

'Ladies and Gentlemen--I assure you it is with sincere regret, that
I regret to be compelled to inform you, that Iago who was to have
played Mr. Wilson--I beg your pardon, Ladies and Gentlemen, but I
am naturally somewhat agitated (applause)--I mean, Mr. Wilson, who
was to have played Iago, is--that is, has been--or, in other words,
Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact is, that I have just received a
note, in which I am informed that Iago is unavoidably detained at
the Post-office this evening. Under these circumstances, I trust--
a--a--amateur performance--a--another gentleman undertaken to read
the part--request indulgence for a short time--courtesy and
kindness of a British audience.' Overwhelming applause. Exit Mr.
Sempronius Gattleton, and curtain falls.

The audience were, of course, exceedingly good-humoured; the whole
business was a joke; and accordingly they waited for an hour with
the utmost patience, being enlivened by an interlude of rout-cakes
and lemonade. It appeared by Mr. Sempronius's subsequent
explanation, that the delay would not have been so great, had it
not so happened that when the substitute Iago had finished
dressing, and just as the play was on the point of commencing, the
original Iago unexpectedly arrived. The former was therefore
compelled to undress, and the latter to dress for his part; which,
as he found some difficulty in getting into his clothes, occupied
no inconsiderable time. At last, the tragedy began in real
earnest. It went off well enough, until the third scene of the
first act, in which Othello addresses the Senate: the only
remarkable circumstance being, that as Iago could not get on any of
the stage boots, in consequence of his feet being violently swelled
with the heat and excitement, he was under the necessity of playing
the part in a pair of Wellingtons, which contrasted rather oddly
with his richly embroidered pantaloons. When Othello started with
his address to the Senate (whose dignity was represented by, the
Duke, a carpenter, two men engaged on the recommendation of the
gardener, and a boy), Mrs. Porter found the opportunity she so
anxiously sought.

Mr. Sempronius proceeded:


'"Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approv'd good masters,
That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is most true;--rude am I in my speech--"'


'Is that right?' whispered Mrs. Porter to Uncle Tom.

'No.'

'Tell him so, then.'

'I will. Sem!' called out Uncle Tom, 'that's wrong, my boy.'

'What's wrong, uncle?' demanded Othello, quite forgetting the
dignity of his situation.

'You've left out something. "True I have married--"'

'Oh, ah!' said Mr. Sempronius, endeavouring to hide his confusion
as much and as ineffectually as the audience attempted to conceal
their half-suppressed tittering, by coughing with extraordinary
violence -


- '"true I have married her; -
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent; no more."


(Aside) Why don't you prompt, father?'

'Because I've mislaid my spectacles,' said poor Mr. Gattleton,
almost dead with the heat and bustle.

'There, now it's "rude am I,"' said Uncle Tom.

'Yes, I know it is,' returned the unfortunate manager, proceeding
with his part.

It would be useless and tiresome to quote the number of instances
in which Uncle Tom, now completely in his element, and instigated
by the mischievous Mrs. Porter, corrected the mistakes of the
performers; suffice it to say, that having mounted his hobby,
nothing could induce him to dismount; so, during the whole
remainder of the play, he performed a kind of running
accompaniment, by muttering everybody's part as it was being
delivered, in an under-tone. The audience were highly amused, Mrs.
Porter delighted, the performers embarrassed; Uncle Tom never was
better pleased in all his life; and Uncle Tom's nephews and nieces
had never, although the declared heirs to his large property, so
heartily wished him gathered to his fathers as on that memorable
occasion.

Several other minor causes, too, united to damp the ardour of the
dramatis personae. None of the performers could walk in their
tights, or move their arms in their jackets; the pantaloons were
too small, the boots too large, and the swords of all shapes and
sizes. Mr. Evans, naturally too tall for the scenery, wore a black
velvet hat with immense white plumes, the glory of which was lost
in 'the flies;' and the only other inconvenience of which was, that
when it was off his head he could not put it on, and when it was on
he could not take it off. Notwithstanding all his practice, too,
he fell with his head and shoulders as neatly through one of the
side scenes, as a harlequin would jump through a panel in a
Christmas pantomime. The pianoforte player, overpowered by the
extreme heat of the room, fainted away at the commencement of the
entertainments, leaving the music of 'Masaniello' to the flute and
violoncello. The orchestra complained that Mr. Harleigh put them
out, and Mr. Harleigh declared that the orchestra prevented his
singing a note. The fishermen, who were hired for the occasion,
revolted to the very life, positively refusing to play without an
increased allowance of spirits; and, their demand being complied
with, getting drunk in the eruption-scene as naturally as possible.
The red fire, which was burnt at the conclusion of the second act,
not only nearly suffocated the audience, but nearly set the house
on fire into the bargain; and, as it was, the remainder of the
piece was acted in a thick fog.

In short, the whole affair was, as Mrs. Joseph Porter triumphantly
told everybody, 'a complete failure.' The audience went home at
four o'clock in the morning, exhausted with laughter, suffering
from severe headaches, and smelling terribly of brimstone and
gunpowder. The Messrs. Gattleton, senior and junior, retired to
rest, with the vague idea of emigrating to Swan River early in the
ensuing week.

Rose Villa has once again resumed its wonted appearance; the
dining-room furniture has been replaced; the tables are as nicely
polished as formerly; the horsehair chairs are ranged against the
wall, as regularly as ever; Venetian blinds have been fitted to
every window in the house to intercept the prying gaze of Mrs.
Joseph Porter. The subject of theatricals is never mentioned in
the Gattleton family, unless, indeed, by Uncle Tom, who cannot
refrain from sometimes expressing his surprise and regret at
finding that his nephews and nieces appear to have lost the relish
they once possessed for the beauties of Shakspeare, and quotations
from the works of that immortal bard.

Charles Dickens