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Ch. 13 - A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured

THESE words will be familiar to all students of Skelt's Juvenile
Drama. That national monument, after having changed its name to
Park's, to Webb's, to Redington's, and last of all to Pollock's,
has now become, for the most part, a memory. Some of its pillars,
like Stonehenge, are still afoot, the rest clean vanished. It may
be the Museum numbers a full set; and Mr. Ionides perhaps, or else
her gracious Majesty, may boast their great collections; but to the
plain private person they are become, like Raphaels, unattainable.
I have, at different times, possessed ALADDIN, THE RED ROVER, THE
BLIND BOY, THE OLD OAK CHEST, THE WOOD DAEMON, JACK SHEPPARD, THE
MILLER AND HIS MEN, DER FREISCHUTZ, THE SMUGGLER, THE FOREST OF
BONDY, ROBIN HOOD, THE WATERMAN, RICHARD I., MY POLL AND MY PARTNER
JOE, THE INCHCAPE BELL (imperfect), and THREE-FINGERED JACK, THE
TERROR OF JAMAICA; and I have assisted others in the illumination
of MAID OF THE INN and THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO. In this roll-call
of stirring names you read the evidences of a happy childhood; and
though not half of them are still to be procured of any living
stationer, in the mind of their once happy owner all survive,
kaleidoscopes of changing pictures, echoes of the past.

There stands, I fancy, to this day (but now how fallen!) a certain
stationer's shop at a corner of the wide thoroughfare that joins
the city of my childhood with the sea. When, upon any Saturday, we
made a party to behold the ships, we passed that corner; and since
in those days I loved a ship as a man loves Burgundy or daybreak,
this of itself had been enough to hallow it. But there was more
than that. In the Leith Walk window, all the year round, there
stood displayed a theatre in working order, with a "forest set," a
"combat," and a few "robbers carousing" in the slides; and below
and about, dearer tenfold to me! the plays themselves, those
budgets of romance, lay tumbled one upon another. Long and often
have I lingered there with empty pockets. One figure, we shall
say, was visible in the first plate of characters, bearded, pistol
in hand, or drawing to his ear the clothyard arrow; I would spell
the name: was it Macaire, or Long Tom Coffin, or Grindoff, 2d
dress? O, how I would long to see the rest! how - if the name by
chance were hidden - I would wonder in what play he figured, and
what immortal legend justified his attitude and strange apparel!
And then to go within, to announce yourself as an intending
purchaser, and, closely watched, be suffered to undo those bundles
and breathlessly devour those pages of gesticulating villains,
epileptic combats, bosky forests, palaces and war-ships, frowning
fortresses and prison vaults - it was a giddy joy. That shop,
which was dark and smelt of Bibles, was a loadstone rock for all
that bore the name of boy. They could not pass it by, nor, having
entered, leave it. It was a place besieged; the shopmen, like the
Jews rebuilding Salem, had a double task. They kept us at the
stick's end, frowned us down, snatched each play out of our hand
ere we were trusted with another, and, increditable as it may
sound, used to demand of us upon our entrance, like banditti, if we
came with money or with empty hand. Old Mr. Smith himself, worn
out with my eternal vacillation, once swept the treasures from
before me, with the cry: "I do not believe, child, that you are an
intending purchaser at all!" These were the dragons of the garden;
but for such joys of paradise we could have faced the Terror of
Jamaica himself. Every sheet we fingered was another lightning
glance into obscure, delicious story; it was like wallowing in the
raw stuff of story-books. I know nothing to compare with it save
now and then in dreams, when I am privileged to read in certain
unwrit stories of adventure, from which I awake to find the world
all vanity. The CRUX of Buridan's donkey was as nothing to the
uncertainty of the boy as he handled and lingered and doated on
these bundles of delight; there was a physical pleasure in the
sight and touch of them which he would jealously prolong; and when
at length the deed was done, the play selected, and the impatient
shopman had brushed the rest into the gray portfolio, and the boy
was forth again, a little late for dinner, the lamps springing into
light in the blue winter's even, and THE MILLER, or THE ROVER, or
some kindred drama clutched against his side - on what gay feet he
ran, and how he laughed aloud in exultation! I can hear that
laughter still. Out of all the years of my life, I can recall but
one home-coming to compare with these, and that was on the night
when I brought back with me the ARABIAN ENTERTAINMENTS in the fat,
old, double-columned volume with the prints. I was just well into
the story of the Hunchback, I remember, when my clergyman-
grandfather (a man we counted pretty stiff) came in behind me. I
grew blind with terror. But instead of ordering the book away, he
said he envied me. Ah, well he might!

The purchase and the first half-hour at home, that was the summit.
Thenceforth the interest declined by little and little. The fable,
as set forth in the play-book, proved to be not worthy of the
scenes and characters: what fable would not? Such passages as:
"Scene 6. The Hermitage. Night set scene. Place back of scene 1,
No. 2, at back of stage and hermitage, Fig. 2, out of set piece, R.
H. in a slanting direction" - such passages, I say, though very
practical, are hardly to be called good reading. Indeed, as
literature, these dramas did not much appeal to me. I forget the
very outline of the plots. Of THE BLIND BOY, beyond the fact that
he was a most injured prince and once, I think, abducted, I know
nothing. And THE OLD OAK CHEST, what was it all about? that
proscript (1st dress), that prodigious number of banditti, that old
woman with the broom, and the magnificent kitchen in the third act
(was it in the third?) - they are all fallen in a deliquium, swim
faintly in my brain, and mix and vanish.

I cannot deny that joy attended the illumination; nor can I quite
forget that child who, wilfully foregoing pleasure, stoops to
"twopence coloured." With crimson lake (hark to the sound of it -
crimson lake! - the horns of elf-land are not richer on the ear) -
with crimson lake and Prussian blue a certain purple is to be
compounded which, for cloaks especially, Titian could not equal.

The latter colour with gamboge, a hated name although an exquisite
pigment, supplied a green of such a savoury greenness that to-day
my heart regrets it. Nor can I recall without a tender weakness
the very aspect of the water where I dipped my brush. Yes, there
was pleasure in the painting. But when all was painted, it is
needless to deny it, all was spoiled. You might, indeed, set up a
scene or two to look at; but to cut the figures out was simply
sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry,
and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance. Two
days after the purchase the honey had been sucked. Parents used to
complain; they thought I wearied of my play. It was not so: no
more than a person can be said to have wearied of his dinner when
he leaves the bones and dishes; I had got the marrow of it and said
grace.

Then was the time to turn to the back of the play-book and to study
that enticing double file of names, where poetry, for the true
child of Skelt, reigned happy and glorious like her Majesty the
Queen. Much as I have travelled in these realms of gold, I have
yet seen, upon that map or abstract, names of El Dorados that still
haunt the ear of memory, and are still but names. THE FLOATING
BEACON - why was that denied me? or THE WRECK ASHORE? SIXTEEN-
STRING JACK whom I did not even guess to be a highwayman, troubled
me awake and haunted my slumbers; and there is one sequence of
three from that enchanted calender that I still at times recall,
like a loved verse of poetry: LODOISKA, SILVER PALACE, ECHO OF
WESTMINSTER BRIDGE. Names, bare names, are surely more to children
than we poor, grown-up, obliterated fools remember.

The name of Skelt itself has always seemed a part and parcel of the
charm of his productions. It may be different with the rose, but
the attraction of this paper drama sensibly declined when Webb had
crept into the rubric: a poor cuckoo, flaunting in Skelt's nest.
And now we have reached Pollock, sounding deeper gulfs. Indeed,
this name of Skelt appears so stagey and piratic, that I will adopt
it boldly to design these qualities. Skeltery, then, is a quality
of much art. It is even to be found, with reverence be it said,
among the works of nature. The stagey is its generic name; but it
is an old, insular, home-bred staginess; not French, domestically
British; not of to-day, but smacking of O. Smith, Fitzball, and the
great age of melodrama: a peculiar fragrance haunting it; uttering
its unimportant message in a tone of voice that has the charm of
fresh antiquity. I will not insist upon the art of Skelt's
purveyors. These wonderful characters that once so thrilled our
soul with their bold attitude, array of deadly engines and
incomparable costume, to-day look somewhat pallidly; the extreme
hard favour of the heroine strikes me, I had almost said with pain;
the villain's scowl no longer thrills me like a trumpet; and the
scenes themselves, those once unparalleled landscapes, seem the
efforts of a prentice hand. So much of fault we find; but on the
other side the impartial critic rejoices to remark the presence of
a great unity of gusto; of those direct clap-trap appeals, which a
man is dead and buriable when he fails to answer; of the footlight
glamour, the ready-made, bare-faced, transpontine picturesque, a
thing not one with cold reality, but how much dearer to the mind!

The scenery of Skeltdom - or, shall we say, the kingdom of
Transpontus? - had a prevailing character. Whether it set forth
Poland as in THE BLIND BOY, or Bohemia with THE MILLER AND HIS MEN,
or Italy with THE OLD OAK CHEST, still it was Transpontus. A
botanist could tell it by the plants. The hollyhock was all
pervasive, running wild in deserts; the dock was common, and the
bending reed; and overshadowing these were poplar, palm, potato
tree, and QUERCUS SKELTICA - brave growths. The caves were all
embowelled in the Surreyside formation; the soil was all betrodden
by the light pump of T. P. Cooke. Skelt, to be sure, had yet
another, an oriental string: he held the gorgeous east in fee; and
in the new quarter of Hyeres, say, in the garden of the Hotel des
Iles d'Or, you may behold these blessed visions realised. But on
these I will not dwell; they were an outwork; it was in the
accidental scenery that Skelt was all himself. It had a strong
flavour of England; it was a sort of indigestion of England and
drop-scenes, and I am bound to say was charming. How the roads
wander, how the castle sits upon the hill, how the sun eradiates
from behind the cloud, and how the congregated clouds themselves
up-roll, as stiff as bolsters! Here is the cottage interior, the
usual first flat, with the cloak upon the nail, the rosaries of
onions, the gun and powder-horn and corner-cupboard; here is the
inn (this drama must be nautical, I foresee Captain Luff and Bold
Bob Bowsprit) with the red curtain, pipes, spittoons, and eight-day
clock; and there again is that impressive dungeon with the chains,
which was so dull to colour. England, the hedgerow elms, the thin
brick houses, windmills, glimpses of the navigable Thames -
England, when at last I came to visit it, was only Skelt made
evident: to cross the border was, for the Scotsman, to come home to
Skelt; there was the inn-sign and there the horse-trough, all
foreshadowed in the faithful Skelt. If, at the ripe age of
fourteen years, I bought a certain cudgel, got a friend to load it,
and thenceforward walked the tame ways of the earth my own ideal,
radiating pure romance - still I was but a puppet in the hand of
Skelt; the original of that regretted bludgeon, and surely the
antitype of all the bludgeon kind, greatly improved from
Cruikshank, had adorned the hand of Jonathan Wild, pl. I. "This is
mastering me," as Whitman cries, upon some lesser provocation.
What am I? what are life, art, letters, the world, but what my
Skelt has made them? He stamped himself upon my immaturity. The
world was plain before I knew him, a poor penny world; but soon it
was all coloured with romance. If I go to the theatre to see a
good old melodrama, 'tis but Skelt a little faded. If I visit a
bold scene in nature, Skelt would have been bolder; there had been
certainly a castle on that mountain, and the hollow tree - that set
piece - I seem to miss it in the foreground. Indeed, out of this
cut-and-dry, dull, swaggering, obtrusive, and infantile art, I seem
to have learned the very spirit of my life's enjoyment; met there
the shadows of the characters I was to read about and love in a
late future; got the romance of DER FREISCHUTZ long ere I was to
hear of Weber or the mighty Formes; acquired a gallery of scenes
and characters with which, in the silent theatre of the brain, I
might enact all novels and romances; and took from these rude cuts
an enduring and transforming pleasure. Reader - and yourself?

A word of moral: it appears that B. Pollock, late J. Redington, No.
73 Hoxton Street, not only publishes twenty-three of these old
stage favourites, but owns the necessary plates and displays a
modest readiness to issue other thirty-three. If you love art,
folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's, or to
Clarke's of Garrick Street. In Pollock's list of publicanda I
perceive a pair of my ancient aspirations: WRECK ASHORE and
SIXTEEN-STRING JACK; and I cherish the belief that when these shall
see once more the light of day, B. Pollock will remember this
apologist. But, indeed, I have a dream at times that is not all a
dream. I seem to myself to wander in a ghostly street - E. W., I
think, the postal district - close below the fool's-cap of St.
Paul's, and yet within easy hearing of the echo of the Abbey
bridge. There in a dim shop, low in the roof and smelling strong
of glue and footlights, I find myself in quaking treaty with great
Skelt himself, the aboriginal all dusty from the tomb. I buy, with
what a choking heart - I buy them all, all but the pantomimes; I
pay my mental money, and go forth; and lo! the packets are dust.

Robert Louis Stevenson