CRIME IN THE CLOUDS.
[The Era ] [Tho following story is from the pen of Mr. J. F. Graham, who will be well remembered by many old Christchnroh playgoers. Ho wa« one of the Hoskins stock company and first made a hit there with Miss Alioe Dunning Lingard in "Our Boys." Ho is now we believe at Home touring the Provinoes with Miss Marie de Grey. The story has especial interest as it refers to an incident that occurred at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch in its early days, and is true in all its details.
i The other night, after the show, the r boys having gathered together— their , usual salutary custom — in a certain snug ? bar-parlour, where mine host " wasn't 3 particular to tun minutes" the cuiivtfr- , sation, as a matter of course, drifted into its inevitable "shoppy" channel. 3 Ultra-sensationalism — not a had word that — being the subject of di'cus'ion, somebody do«m>it ; c*lly cited The linl- > ing Passion as the first aud only instauco ' of a balloon having bean pressed into ' the service of the drams. Now ai I bad aaaisted some eleven, year* since at a I production iv which one of those aerial . monsters figured somovrhat prominently, i lat onco mentioned the fact, and having incautiously hinted that the associations 1 in connection therewith were "passing i strange" the boys unanimously insisted i that I should incontinently unlock tho flood-gates of my memory, and " all the circumstances relate/ The worthy landlord being still complaisant, I reeled off the yarn, and its favourable reception disposed me to think tbat a wider audience might possibly care to hear a chapter from an old actor's experiences in the Britain of the South. It was in the City of Christohurch, New Zealand, as nearly as I can reoollect about the end of Oct, iber, 1875. I was then one of the members of V company whloh had been for aotne time buttling under the banner of long Billy joskins, of Sadler's Wells fame— the Pbelps and Greenwood regime — a gloricu9 actor, but of whom, qn all matter.? m&nagpriqt, and especially with regard to disbursements, it might truly be said — An older soldier none, Tliat Christendom gives out. Billy was, in fac>, and, I make no doubt, still is, "as downoy as they make 'em," and having squeezed the draraatio sponge, as far as Christchurch was concerned, pretty thoroughly, he hurriedly closed the theatre, and, with his wife, poor Florence Oilville, sailed merrily a*- ay on a starring tour, I think, to Sydney, acutely hinting without, however, absolutely committing himself to anything, that in a few weeks he should probably be back to inaugurate another long season with a big Christmas production.
Mo\y 'n tllQsp days the profession ty tho ooloniea had boen swamped by the flood of dramatics refugees driven from both England and America by the pernioioas touring system, with its auacotuitant evil— the blatant, all-pervading amateur. Comedians were uot then to be found "thick as leaves in Vallombrosa," nor-had the Hon. George Coppia at that time fulfilled his unsavoury boast of having aotors ss cheap in Melbourne as stin— hem— putrosoent
fish. We therefore, •■ as a capable company, every member of whiohj thoroughly understood his or her business— for Billy kept no useless mouths — would, iv all likelihood, uod,er normal circumstances, soon, individually or collectively, have been in harness again. The times were, - howeverj peculiarly unpropitious. The Princess's Theatre, Dunedin, had been lately burned to the ground ; Simonsen's Italian opera company in the North Island was steadily working down our way ; preliminary " pars" anent the original and only Blondin, the hero of Niagara, were beginning to make their appearance in the local prints with ominous frequency ; and, worse than all, 1 " summer had y eomen in," glorious, 1 golden summer, with its merry, m«rry sunshine playing fantastic trioks before high Heavem till past nine of the village clock, and then only sinking in its wonted west, to be followed by the amber effulgence of a moon as big as a champion prize Gruye>e cheese, or the scintillating radiance of a starlight one might easily rsad by. Everything therefore poiuted to the probability of a continued spell of inglorious ease — the euphemism " resting " had not, as yet, been evolved. The Theatre Royal, Chrutchurcb, was at that period not wholly unasaociated with licensed victualling interest being, in faot, deftly sandwiched between two large hotels, the Criterion and the Q. O. E., tho proprietors of which, Messrs Bayley and Beattv, popularly known as the two busy Bs, were also the joint owners of the Thespian temple; Actuated by a laudable desire to keep their beer engines in fair working order, and their staff from eating the bread of Idleness, they magnanimously offered us the show box at a reduced rental, which was, however, to be a first charge on the takings. Some of the company had family ties in the town, and were consequently, like poor Jo, averse to moving on ; others, the improvident ones, lacked the necessary funds to carry them farther afield in a land where travelling ■una high ; others, again, pinned their ailh to Billy Hoskins' vague valedictory romiße of a speedy return, and were anxious to " hold on for a few weeks." So, in spite of the uncompromising outlook, in apite of bitter experience, lured by that specious hope of something turning up, which certainly springs eternal in the actor's breast, we closed with the proprietor's offer, and banded ourselves into that saddest of all dramatic ooalitiona— a pro rata common* woalth. But it wouldn't work. It was flogging a dead hor.»e, and it never pays to flog a dead horse -especially if the horse be quite dead. The town wanted a rest — wanted it badly— and took it. The Canterbury boys left our efforts severely Rlone, preferring to devote their evenings to the stirring joys of the cricket-field — by the way, they opened the eye* of Shaw and Lillywhite's team in 1878— or to taking their sitters and cousins, and possibly their aunts, for moonlight boating trips on the soft flowing Avon, which winds lovingly round the City of the Plains. Still, we made a bold bid for victory. We had a shy at everything — dramas classical, dramas mythological, nautical, pastoral, and domestic, and all to no, or, at least, very little, purpose. In vain did long Tom Coffin flourish his deadly harpoon over the devoted head of the recalcitrant Yankee captain ; in vain did Pygmalion brood over tho chartered insolence of tho dandy helot Agesimos, the while he cast a calculating eye over the sparsely tenanted dress circle ; in vain did Madame Vine let down her back hair and fling her grey front and blue goggles into the prompt corner with an hysterical shriek because the little boy borrowed from Barmoister's oyster shop " had died and never called her mother." Tho fickle public, like Gallio, cared for none of these things. Even the seductive single order, however shrowdly and extensively plantod, failed to produce aught save tho most meagre harvest ; acd each evening, as the overture was rung in, Joe Stark, my Jidus AcJiates, who had beeu in tbesamo shops with me for years, would shout into my dressing-room the comforting intelligence that " Mr. and Mrs. Bench and the Seat family were in front again." At this crisis, when, although we drew the line at Stocney Todd and The Man Cat, we had yet sunk ao low as to tip 'am Jack Sheppard and The Bottle in the same evening, the inevitable manuscript turned up, Luince Booth, who played our juveniles, proffered us his cherished bantling Crime in the Clouds, which being, as he ingeniously put it— your dramatist is nothing if not modest — full of strong characterisation, replete with sUrtling iucideut spirited dialogue, any uinonnt of local colour, and, above all, a sensation scene never before even thought of, "ought to fetch
i Drowning men, even managers, catch | at straws, and the waters were nearly ; over our heads. We adjourned to , Beatty's, and there, over many pints of " she oak,"— cnlonial beer — Booth ran through a synopsis of his play. The i general verdict was " rather a curdler," . but the big sensation was admitted to ■ be a novelty, though our stage-manager '; —Walter Hill, an old school follow of ,J. L. Toole'a — pointed out that at the end of the first act it unfortunately came in the wrong place. Crime in the Clouds, » new drama by a local author, was underlined for (he ensuing Saturday. It was cast and the parts given out. Paddy Williams, the scenic artist, was commissioned to paint a big tranapsraooy for the front entrance) a special double-orowu day bill was drawn up ; and Parish, our property master— a very good man when sober, which, unfortunately, he never was — promised great things in the way of effects. The transparency, illustrating the principal sensational situation of the drama, was a huge aucceß3. In it the hero was represented as being hurled backwards into space from the car of a balloon round which a flock of hungry eyed vulturea circled expectantly, whilst below, at a distance of apparently some mites, the serrated peaks of a snow-clad mountain range waited grimly to receivo him. Ab the scene of the catastrophe , w^s laid in Buckinghamshire the adjuncts must be considered purely in the light of pictorial licence With four clear days th,ere vya.9, of oourso, plenty of time fp,r stu,dy, and some of \]t worked conscientiously ; but, the bonds qf discipline b.qng a bjt loose, as is invariably the oase where Ja.ok is supposed to be as good as his master, othors didn't, and by about Thursday the poor author was almost demented. Regarding eaoh word as a pearl of price, a misplaced iidjoctivo or the substitution of an " if." for a " but" drove him nearly frantic. Some of the boys, however, I am sorry to say, didn't approach tho piece with tho reverence due to tho work of a lifetime, and when I remonstrated with Joe Stark on the injustice ha was guilty of by reading hia part at the last rehearsal, ho flippantly asked me " how I should like to chin off a ohromy old geezer who started every act, and hadu't got a soft spot in seven lengths."
Saturday night came, and brought a very decent houae so far as the moro popular part. 1 } were concerned, and as the (1 beainnerg'' for tho first act peeped through the eyelet In the time-honoured baize, it was the generally expressed opinion that Daddy's transparency had "done thotriok." Of the aotual plot I can say bat littlo. In those palmy days we had, as a rule, enough to do to study our own parts, without exercising ourselves overmuch as to tho balance of the piece, and if it be true, as we are told, that the great Mm. Siddons was only familiar with such
portions of the test of "Macbeth" ad. immediately concerned the soeneß i inj which she herself appeared, some ex -j cute may, I think,, be found for the hard-worked "night to nigbter." "A*;. however, I played the dual rofedf.fathei? 'and son, the joint heroes of the' play, [1; was somewhere about most pf the time:. In the first capacity, as father, I did enact a virtuous sporting. baronet, the lord of many acres, who, for unexplained reasons, had secretly married his own gamekeeper's daughter.' I have, for 4 gotten the proud name I bore, but, of course it was a virtuous one- a Harold, a Gerald, or a Wilfred. Then there was the usual malignant cousin — appro; priately named Malise, with, of course; 1 been eye to the succession of iriy fair domain, and also, I believe, a penohant for the heaux yeux of my clandestine bride, but of this I am not quite so sure. Taking advantage of my well-known proclivity for hair-brained adventure, Malise, the malignant, who, it appeared, dabbled in aerostatics,' had suggested my accompanying him on the occasion of his next ascent, and the concluding scene of the first act showed the consummation of his villainous scheme. Wings, boarders, and bucking were all painted in a counterfeit presentment of Cloudlaud. The hanging water's— used a week or two back for the wreck of the Ariel — had also been rubbed into a fleecy cumuli, and set oscillating at a rate which would have certainly produced on atmospherical disturbance of no ordinary magnitude. Slowly, through them all, to soft and mysterious music, rose the balloon —alas, only a profile one — creakily suggesting the need of a judicious application of a little black lead to the blocks and dead-eyea which supported it. At length, the car Appeared, to the wicker-work of which I was desperately clinging, coatless — shirt-sleeves are always so effective— 7 and whilst my malignant kinsman hooted at my hands with a gleaming dagger, his accomplice in crime-^no other than my gamekeepiDg father-in-law— induced to join the nefarious plot by the hint that I had beguiled his daughter from the path of rectitude— buat me vigorously over the head with a murderous bludgeon. Half way towards the flies the balloon considerately stopped for a parley, and my life was offered me on certain terms, which, however, with rose-pink blood streaming merrily from my trenched gashes, I contemptuously rejected in the spirited, if somewhat conventional words. "Never! sooner a thousand deaths i" This, of course, eliolted a round, the balloon again ascended flyward, and my assailants calmly renewed their merciless attask. At the height of about twelve feet, with a last agonised cry, I dropped upon the piled- up baize and carpets, crouching prone behind a ground-row, fearful of exposing any portion of my anatomy to the audience until the thud of the act-drop roller and the loud applause in front, told me and the delighted author that, ao far, all was well. I believe that, by all known laws of serostalion, the balloon, suddenly re. lieved of dead weight to the tune of 1601 b avoirdupois, should have shot up some miles ; but our faithful profile never wavered an inch, and to the last the malignant and his minion were seen glowering earthwards with " greasy 1 smiles of truculent defiance ;" whilst Parish, the property man, who was in his usual balmy condition, launched from the fly-rail a large mechanical bat — used in " The Tempest"— to which he had affixed the head of au albatross, and which he flapped jerkily about until tho "rag" fell, meeting the stage- ' manager's storm of indignation with the calm aiaerlion that the hybrid was a trick " Vuloher," and that he'd only done his boat to "realize the pictnre poster and keep faith with the public." In the second act mf part was purely a passive one. My mortal remains, which, after their come-down in the - world should certainly have presented a i somewhat mangled appeirance, were brought in on a bier, covered, all Bave the face on which the prepared ohalklike hues of death were plainly visible, with a large sheet. Taking advantage of the long wait, I had underdressed for tho next act, and my horror may be imagined when my bereaved widow, Mrs Waller Hill, disregarding the nods and winks I contrived to give with my up- stage eye, after calling down a very vigorous and sustained curaeon those who had lured me to my death, proceeded to tear away my covetlet, and by disclosing me attired in the gay garb of a British officer not only mystified the audience, but, what was of more consequence, seriously discounted the effect my brilliant uniform should have produced on my next appearance. The third act brought us to Hew Zealand — this is where the local colour came in. The author here made his debut in the character of the gallant Major Von Terapsky, killed in the Waikato war of 1866, and was greeted with a storm of cheers. A special feature waa to have been the introduction of a real native war. dance, when well done one of the most terribly rapressive sights imaginable, but the Middle Island Maoris are a mild, inoffensive race, vastly inferior - to. ■ the fierce tattooed tribesman of Auckland or Taranaki, and the idea was perforce abandoned. "We managed, however, to unearth a few supernumeraries from a na',ivo (l whare" at Kaiapoi, who, in consideration of a certain small tribute to their head-man, and a bottle of rum apiece, condescended to throw a faint air of realism, and a ttroug odour of fish oil, over the various scenes in which they appeared. In one of these an amusing inoldent, with, however, a painful side to it, occurred. The low comedian, having fallen into the hands of the wily enemy, was according to the author, bound to the stake, tortured, and finally set fire to. This was a serious solecism, inexcusable in any one who bad actually lived in the country. The New Zealand savage does not, and never did, torture the captive of bis bow and spear, or rather of his stone-olnb and tomahawk. He would eat him, cheerfully, and to that end would tenderly bake him with an abundance of yams, plantain leaves, and fern root, but his "long-pork" was invariably despatched as quiakly and mercifully as possible,
However, tho dramatio author who stays his hand for a bare f»ct or two when he oousiders he has hit on a good situation does not, I believe, yet adorn
this Bublhnary sphere, so poor Walter Hill was doomed to undergo the ordeal by lire. Thin proved more severe than had been anticipated. Not content with merely lighting ttie sacrifloial pile
— two or three short iron dogs bound with tow saturated in kerosene — our zealous aboriginals, inspired by rum, or, possibly, a latent craving after realism, promptly hauled tb,e biasing masa into oloae juxtqpoaition with their unhappy victim, who, bound hand and foot to a
"act" tree, waa poworloea to offer any resistance. An immediate and drama-
tically premature rescue was, of ccwso, imperative, aod, though q bit unnerved aod a good d.eal singed, poor Walter had still enough of the old actor about him to grutnblingly lament the loss of his " fattest" scene. Meanwhile old Time- had b-'en turaing on his hour-glass, and in the character of my own son £ had now arrived a.t man's estate. My aucastral homo was still held by my uefariou,s Uinamau, who had apparently satisfied the county "orowner"' that my father's iu juries were due either to natural causea or the visitation of God. I was an ofi\cer ii£ the urmy, madly in love with a certain young lady named played by the,
author's wife, a complete novice, and a crude one at' that. Her previous appearances had been exclusively pf ,tlie '■'■voiceless 1 page"- order,' bat her Husband had made our acceptance ,oE her services as juvenile heroine a sine jua 71022.,., O£ course, I bad a hated rival, 1 a notorious duellist, who" took the first opportunity of fastening a quarrel on me.; Inter* ruptiog a tender Ute-a-Ute, throughout which my beloved, having jumped a speech, ■ was hopelessly , and pitiably ; at sea, with many cutting insults he goaded me into striking 'him, upon whWhe drew his sword, my beloved _ rushed between us, and the flats closed in on a sort oE "Through my heart first, situation. This is ■ what ; ahb'uld have happened. . TTnfortunatelyJi.'the actor east for my rival, our ambitious, ..prompter — who, I notice from tke Australian' papers which occasionally reaohi me, hns since performed the laudable office of self-canonisation by the ingeniously simple 'process of insetting: an aristocratic Saint between his spousorial and patronymic appellations —had, for some reason or other — I suspect an old grudge against the ■ author— not • troubled 'to study one" consecutive linVof bis part; indeed, I doubt if lr beyond mumbling it from the scrip' at rehearsal, he could have even looked at it. Instead, there, fore, of the biting sarcasms which wera to aeud me flying at his throat, he con. fined himself to the comparatively innocent and commonplade obaervation that it was a Bne evening!. "l 'gave 5 him the word satlo voce, but he only repeated his opinion of the atmospherical phenomenon. This was 1 decidedly awkward ; but in those days the actor who stuck for a cue or two was of little use ttr the average management, to, .with the'remark that " I fully understood his tone of studied insult,"- 1 sailed inj and contrived to piece the scene together somehow, ending by forcing "my antagonist to his knee, an improvised picture upon which the stage' iren were in the 'act of closing in, when my beloved, who in* a semi-dazed condition had drifted-;aim-lessly down to the .first entrance; awoke to thefaot that she was on the wrong side, and made a rush for the gap. She got through safely, but a portion of her dress remained firmly wedged, to the intense amusement of the audience, and the flats had to be drawn off again to release her. ■ > '■ •--• i-= ■
I may mention that bar prompter's aversion to study did not prevent him, wlien'killed later on in the abtion of the piece, from calmly appropriating -the author's own death speech sn'd dying in the " firm centre." Wh'en'the act-drop fell there was a very merry five minutes. The last act was of the shortest. Armed with all 'necessary proofs for establishing my rights, I bearded my usurping kinsman in his lair: : Meeting me in tbe gloomy ancestral wood in. the full and sudden glare of a few inches of magnesium wire— l hardly, tbinkitrau to limelight in those diys— he, of coarse, took me for the. avenging spirit of my dead father, but, being ■ undeceived, treacherously fired at me, ' missed, and was incontinently slain by a 'convenient flash of lightning, probably attracted b the barrel of his pistol.. ; >• - £ ' :> ' - The lights went up, everybody, came on. I embraced my awestruck beloved. Cheers were given for the; Ibng-loat rightful heir, and " Crime in the Olonds," was an accomplished fact. •' , l;i ' ';('''■;.