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'AH!' says Thackeray, pathetically, 'Prague is a pleasant city, but we all lose our way to it late in life.'
The Wopples family were true Bohemians, and had not yet lost their way to the pleasant city. They accepted good and bad fortune with wonderful equanimity, and if their pockets were empty one day, there was always a possibility of their being full the next. When this was the case they generally celebrated the event by a little supper, and as their present season in Ballarat bid fair to be a successful one, Mr Theodore Wopples determined to have a convivial evening after the performance was over.
That the Wopples family were favourites with the Ballarat folk was amply seen by the crowded house which assembled to see 'The Cruet Stand'. The audience were very impatient for the curtain to rise, as they did not appreciate the overture, which consisted of airs from 'La Mascotte', adapted for the violin and piano by Mr Handel Wopples, who was the musical genius of the family, and sat in the conductor's seat, playing the violin and conducting the orchestra of one, which on this occasion was Miss Jemima Wopples, who presided at the piano. The Wopples family consisted of twelve star artistes, beginning with Mr Theodore Wopples, aged fifty, and ending with Master Sheridan Wopples, aged ten, who did the servants' characters, delivered letters, formed the background in tableaux, and made himself generally useful. As the cast of the comedy was only eight, two of the family acted as the orchestra, and the remaining two took money at the door. When their duties in this respect were over for the night, they went into the pit to lead the applause.
At last the orchestra finished, and the curtain drew up, displaying an ancient house belonging to a decayed family. The young Squire, present head of the decayed family (Mr Cibber Wopples), is fighting with his dishonest steward (admirably acted by Mr Dogbery Wopples), whose daughter he wants to marry. The dishonest steward, during Act I, without any apparent reason, is struck with remorse, and making his will in favour of the Squire, departs to America, but afterwards appears in the last act as someone else. Leaving his will on the drawing-room table, as he naturally would, it is seized by an Eton boy (Master Sheridan Wopples), who hides it, for some unexplained reason, in the cruet-stand, being the last piece of family plate remaining to the decayed family. This is seized by a comic bailiff (Mr Theodore Wopples), who takes it to his home; and the decayed family, finding out about the will, start to chase the bailiff and recover the stolen property from him. This brought the play on to Act II, which consisted mainly of situations arising out of the indiscriminate use of doors and windows for entrances and exits. The bailiff's mother-in-law (Mrs Wopples) appears in this act, and, being in want of a new dress, takes the cruet stand to her 'uncle' and pawns it; so Act II ends with a general onslaught of the decayed family on Mrs Wopples.
Then the orchestra played the 'Wopples' Waltz', dedicated to Mr Theodore Wopples by Mr Handel Wopples, and during the performance of this Mr Villiers walked into the theatre. He was a little pale, as was only natural after such an adventure as he had been engaged in, but otherwise seemed all right. He walked up to the first row of the stalls, and took his seat beside a young man of about twenty-five, who was evidently much amused at the performance.
'Hullo, Villiers!' said this young gentleman, turning round to the new arrival, 'what d'ye think of the play?'
'Only just got in,' returned Mr Villiers, sulkily, looking at his programme. 'Any good?' in a more amiable tone.
'Well, not bad,' returned the other, pulling up his collar; 'I've seen it in Melbourne, you know--the original, I mean; this is a very second-hand affair.'
Mr Villiers nodded, and became absorbed in his programme; so, seeing he was disinclined for more conversation, the young gentleman turned his attention to the 'Wopples Waltz', which was now being played fast and furiously by the indefatigable orchestra of two.
Bartholomew Jarper--generally called Barty by his friends--was a bank clerk, and had come up to Ballarat on a visit. He was well known in Melbourne society, and looked upon himself quite as a leader of fashion. He went everywhere, danced divinely--so the ladies said--sang two or three little songs, and played the same accompaniment to each of them, was seen constantly at the theatres, plunged a little at the races, and was altogether an extremely gay dog. It is, then, little to be wondered at that, satiated as he was with Melbourne gaiety, he should be vastly critical of the humble efforts of the Wopples family to please him. He had met Villiers at his hotel, when both of them being inebriated they swore eternal friendship. Mr Villiers, however, was very sulky on this particular night, for his head still pained him, so Barty stared round the house in a supercilious manner, and sucked the nob of his cane for refreshment between the acts.
Just as the orchestra were making their final plunge into the finale of the 'Wopples' Waltz', M. Vandeloup, cool and calm as usual, strolled into the theatre, and, seeing a vacant seat beside Villiers, walked over and took it.
'Good evening, my friend,' he said, touching Villiers on the shoulder. 'Enjoying the play, eh?'
Villiers angrily pushed away the Frenchman's hand and glared vindictively at him.
'Ah, you still bear malice for that little episode of the ditch,' said Vandeloup with a gay laugh. 'Come, now, this is a mistake; let us be friends.'
'Go to the devil!' growled Villiers, crossly.
'All right, my friend,' said M. Vandeloup, serenely crossing his legs. 'We'll all end up by paying a visit to that gentleman, but while we are on earth we may as well be pleasant. Seen your wife lately?'
This apparently careless inquiry caused Mr Villiers to jump suddenly out of his seat, much to the astonishment of Barty, who did not know for what reason he was standing up.
'Ah! you want to look at the house, I suppose,' remarked M. Vandeloup, lazily; 'the building is extremely ugly, but there are some redeeming features in it. I refer, of course, to the number of pretty girls,' and Gaston turned round and looked steadily at a red- haired damsel behind him, who blushed and giggled, thinking he was referring to her.
Villiers resumed his seat with a sigh, and seeing that it was quite useless to quarrel with Vandeloup, owing to that young man's coolness, resolved to make the best of a bad job, and held out his hand with a view to reconciliation.
'It's no use fighting with you,' he said, with an uneasy laugh, as the other took his hand, 'you are so deuced amiable.'
'I am,' replied Gaston, calmly examining his programme; 'I practise all the Christian virtues.'
Here Barty, on whom the Frenchman's appearance and conversation had produced an impression, requested Villiers, in a stage whisper, to introduce him--which was done. Vandeloup looked the young man coolly up and down, and eventually decided that Mr Barty Jarper was a 'cad', for whatever his morals might be, the Frenchman was a thorough gentleman. However, as he was always diplomatic, he did not give utterance to his idea, but taking a seat next to Barty's, he talked glibly to him until the orchestra finished with a few final bangs, and the curtain drew up on Act III.
The scene was the interior of a pawnshop, where the pawnbroker, a gentleman of Hebraic descent (Mr Buckstone Wopples), sells the cruet to the dishonest steward, who has come back from America disguised as a sailor. The decayed family all rush in to buy the cruet stand, but on finding it gone, overwhelm the pawnbroker with reproaches, so that to quiet them he hides them all over the shop, on the chance that the dishonest steward will come back. The dishonest steward does so, and having found the will tears it up on the stage, upon which he is assaulted by the decayed family, who rush out from all parts. Ultimately, he reveals himself and hands back the cruet stand and the estates to the decayed family, after which a general marrying all round took place, which proceeding was very gratifying to the boys in the gallery, who gave their opinions very freely, and the curtain fell amid thunders of applause. Altogether 'The Cruet Stand' was a success, and would have a steady run of three nights at least, so Mr Wopples said--and as a manager of long standing, he was thoroughly well up in the subject.
Villiers, Vandeloup, and Barty went out and had a drink, and as none of them felt inclined to go to bed, Villiers told them he knew Mr Theodore Wopples, and proposed that they should go behind the scenes and see him. This was unanimously carried, and after some difficulty with the door-keeper--a crusty old man with a red face and white hair, that stood straight up in a tuft, and made him look like an infuriated cockatoo--they obtained access to the mysterious regions of the stage, and there found Master Sheridan Wopples practising a breakdown while waiting for the rest of the family to get ready. This charming youth, who was small, dried-up and wonderfully sharp, volunteered to guide them to his father's dressing-room, and on knocking at the door Mr Wopples' voice boomed out 'Come in,' in such an unexpected manner that it made them all jump.
On entering the room they found Mr Wopples, dressed in a light tweed suit, and just putting on his coat. It was a small room, with a flaring gas-jet, under which there was a dressing-table littered over with grease, paints, powder, vaseline and wigs, and upon it stood a small looking-glass. A great basket-box with the lid wide open stood at the end of the room, with a lot of clothes piled up on it, and numerous other garments were hung up upon the walls. A washstand, with a basin full of soapy water, stood under a curtainless window, and there was only one chair to be seen, which Mr Wopples politely offered to his visitor. Mr Villiers, however, told him he had brought two gentlemen to introduce to him, at which Mr Wopples was delighted; and on the introduction taking place, assured both Vandeloup and Barty that it was one of the proudest moments of his life-a stock phrase he always used when introduced to visitors. He was soon ready, and preceded the party out of the room, when he stopped, struck with a sudden idea.
'I have left the gas burning in my dressing-room,' he said, in his rolling voice, 'and, if you will permit me, gentlemen, I will go back and turn it off.'
This was rather difficult to manage, inasmuch as the stairs were narrow, and three people being between Mr Wopples and his dressing- room, he could not squeeze past.
Finally the difficulty was settled by Villiers, who was last, and who went back and turned out the gas.
When he came down he found Mr Wopples waiting for him.
'I thank you, sir,' he said, grandly, 'and will feel honoured if you will give me the pleasure of your company at a modest supper consisting principally of cold beef and pickles.'
Of course, they all expressed themselves delighted, and as the entire Wopples family had already gone to their hotel, Mr Wopples with his three guests went out of the theatre and wended their way towards the same place, only dropping into two or three bars on the way to have drinks at Barty's expense.
They soon arrived at the hotel, and having entered, Mr Wopples pushed open the door of a room from whence the sound of laughter proceeded, and introduced the three strangers to his family. The whole ten, together with Mrs Wopples, were present, and were seated around a large table plentifully laden with cold beef and pickles, salads, bottles of beer, and other things too numerous to mention. Mr Wopples presented them first to his wife, a faded, washed-out looking lady, with a perpetual simper on her face, and clad in a lavender muslin gown with ribbons of the same description, she looked wonderfully light and airy. In fact she had a sketchy appearance as if she required to be touched up here and there, to make her appear solid, which was of great service to her in her theatrical career, as it enabled her to paint on the background of herself any character she wished to represent.
'This,' said Mr Wopples in his deep voice, holding his wife's hand as if he were afraid she would float upward thro' the ceiling like a bubble--a not unlikely thing seeing how remarkably ethereal she looked; 'this is my flutterer.'
Why he called her his flutterer no one ever knew, unless it was because her ribbons were incessantly fluttering; but, had he called her his shadow, the name would have been more appropriate.
Mrs Wopples fluttered down to the ground in a bow, and then fluttered up again.
'Gentlemen,' she said, in a thin, clear voice, 'you are welcome. Did you enjoy the performance?'
'Madame,' returned Vandeloup, with a smile, 'need you ask that?'
A shadowy smile floated over Mrs Wopples' indistinct features, and then her husband introduced the rest of the family in a bunch.
'Gentlemen,' he said, waving his hand to the expectant ten, who stood in a line of five male and five female, 'the celebrated Wopples family.'
The ten all simultaneously bowed at this as if they were worked by machinery, and then everyone sat down to supper, Mr Theodore Wopples taking the head of the table. All the family seemed to admire him immensely, and kept their eyes fastened on his face with affectionate regard.
'Pa,' whispered Miss Siddons Wopples to Villiers, who sat next to her, 'is a most wonderful man. Observe his facial expression.'
Villiers observed it, and admitted also in a whisper that it was truly marvellous.
Cold beef formed the staple viand on the table, and everyone did full justice to it, as also to beer and porter, of which Mr Wopples was very generous.
'I prefer to give my friends good beer instead of bad champagne,' he said, pompously. 'Ha! ha! the antithesis, I think, is good.'
The Wopples family unanimously agreed that it was excellent, and Mr Handel Wopples observed to Barty that his father often made jokes worthy of Tom Hood, to which Barty agreed hastily, as he did not know who Tom Hood was, and besides was flirting in a mild manner with Miss Fanny Wopples, a pretty girl, who did the burlesque business.
'And are all these big boys and girls yours, Madame?' asked Vandeloup, who was rather astonished at the number of the family, and thought some of them might have been hired for theatrical purposes. Mrs Wopples nodded affirmatively with a gratified flutter, and her husband endorsed it.
'There are four dead,' he said, in a solemn voice. 'Rest their souls.'
All the ten faces round the board reflected the gloom on the parental countenance, and for a few moments no one spoke.
'This,' said Mr Wopples, looking round with a smile, at which all the other faces lighted up, 'this is not calculated to make our supper enjoyable, children. I may tell you that, in consequence of the great success of "The Cruet Stand", we play it again to-morrow night.'
'Ah!' said Mr Buckstone Wopples, with his mouth full, 'I knew it would knock 'em; that business of yours, father, with the writ is simply wonderful.'
All the family chorused 'Yes,' and Mr Wopples admitted, with a modest smile, that it was wonderful.
'Practise,' said Mr Wopples, waving a fork with a piece of cold beef at the end of it, 'makes perfect. My dear Vandeloup, if you will permit me to call you so, my son Buckstone is truly a wonderful critic.'
Vandeloup smiled at this, and came to the conclusion that the Wopples family was a mutual admiration society. However, as it was now nearly twelve o'clock, he rose to take his leave.
'Oh, you're not going yet,' said Mr Wopples, upon which all the family echoed, 'Surely, not yet,' in a most hospitable manner.
'I must,' said Vandeloup, with a smile. 'I know Madame will excuse me,' with a bow to Mrs Wopples, who thereupon fluttered nervously; 'but I have to be up very early in the morning.'
'In that case,' said Mr Wopples, rising, 'I will not detain you; early to bed and early to rise, you know; not that I believe in it much myself, but I understand it is practised with good results by some people.'
Vandeloup shook hands with Mr and Mrs Wopples, but feeling unequal to taking leave of the ten star artistes in the same way, he bowed in a comprehensive manner, whereupon the whole ten arose from their chairs and bowed unanimously in return.
'Good night, Messrs Villiers and Jarper,' said Vandeloup, going out of the door, 'I will see you to-morrow.'
'And we also, I hope,' said Mr Wopples, ungrammatically. 'Come and see "The Cruet Stand" again. I'll put your name on the free list.'
M. Vandeloup thanked the actor warmly for this kind offer, and took himself off; as he passed along the street he heard a burst of laughter from the Wopples family, no doubt caused by some witticism of the head of the clan.
He walked slowly home to the hotel, smoking a cigarette, and thinking deeply. When he arrived at the 'Wattle Tree' he saw a light still burning in the bar, and, on knocking at the door, was admitted by Miss Twexby, who had been making up accounts, and whose virgin head was adorned with curl-papers.
'My!' said this damsel, when she saw him, 'you are a nice young man coming home at this hour--twelve o'clock. See?' and, as a proof of her assertion, she pointed to the clock.
'Were you waiting up for me, dear?' asked Vandeloup, audaciously.
'Not I,' retorted Miss Twexby, tossing her curl-papers; 'I've been attending to par's business; but, oh, gracious!' with a sudden recollection of her head-gear, 'you've seen me in undress.'
'And you look more charming than ever,' finished Vandeloup, as he took his bedroom candle from her. 'I will see you in the morning. My friend still asleep, I suppose?'
'I'm sure I don't know. I haven't seen him all the evening,' replied Miss Twexby, tossing her head, 'now, go away. You're a naughty, wicked, deceitful thing. I declare I'm quite afraid of you.'
'There's no need, I assure you,' replied Vandeloup, in a slightly sarcastic voice, as he surveyed the plain-looking woman before him; 'you are quite safe from me.'
He left the bar, whistling an air, while the fair Martha returned to her accounts, and wondered indignantly whether his last remark was a compliment or otherwise.
The conclusion she came to was that it was otherwise, and she retired to bed in a very wrathful frame of mind.
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