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Title: "Not In The Bill" REAL DRAMAS Part 3 (Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent) Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200721h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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When young Lord Strandford came or age there were festivities in honour of the occasion at Strandford Park, the family seat in Loamshire. As everybody knows, the Mepherhams are an extremely good old family, somewhat simple and unaffected, and by no means meriting the title of 'up-to-date.' As a matter of fact they would have resented anything of the kind as suggestive of the modern financier of Teutonic origin, the like of which would have had a poor chance of obtaining admission beyond the gates of Strandford Park—unless they came on Mondays and Fridays to see the pictures.
Therefore it was considered a daring innovation on Lady Challenger's part when she suggested theatricals. An amateur performance was not in her mind at all—greatly daring, she wanted to have a professional company, and a drama performed by them in the Rubens Gallery.
Lord Challenger raised no objection, provided that the expense was not too great. Dramatic 'stars,' of course, were out of the question. How to set about it was hardly less difficult a matter. Almost in despair, Lady Challenger wrote to a friend who had a position almost unique as a leading amateur. Really the thing was quite simple, the reply came. Lady Challenger had only to state her requirements in a letter to Blank's Dramatic Agency, 1194, Strand, and the thing was done. She would be able to pick her own play, and, as Strandford Park was on a main line, the whole company could catch the down express and be back in London by half-past one. All trains could be stopped by signal at Strandford Park Station. The rest was merely the signing of the necessary cheque.
Really it was delightfully simple. Messrs. Blank were quite willing to supply a competent cast, they had the honour of submitting some comedy-dramas for her Ladyship's selection. The fee would be so much, and Messrs. Blank would produce the play, erect the stage, and generally manage the proceedings.
Like most simple-minded ladies who pass most of their time in the country, Lady Challenger was of a romantic turn. She wanted a pretty play with considerable emotion in it. She finally made selection of a piece founded on an incident in one of Wilkie Collins' novels—the story of a persecuted woman who suffered punishment for the crime of another. It really was a pretty story, and Lady Challenger shed tears over the woes of Hester Walters, the innocent convict.
She was interested in women convicts, and, indeed, she knew something of their habits. The female prison at Oldchester was only four miles away, and Lady Challenger was one of the visitors. No doubt this fact influenced her in choosing the play.
Messrs. Blank's representatives duly appeared, a pretty little stage was elected in the Rubens Gallery, the invitations were out, and the programme printed. The dramatic performance was the culminating point in a long day's festivities. There was a cricket match against the Free Foresters in the Park, a dinner for the workmen on the estate at mid-day, and a children's fete in the afternoon. The house was filled to its utmost capacity. At four o'clock most of the talented cast arrived, and immediately proceeded to dine. Lady Challenger was pleased to be present.
"I hope you have a good company, Mr. Trenor?" said her Ladyship.
"I can confidently say so, Lady Challenger," Mr. Vernon Trenor, the stage-manager smiled. "To all practical purposes we have a London company. We are all artists. Most of us are under contract to the big managers—we accept these engagements by special arrangement."
Lady Challenger smilingly accepted the assurance. Everything appeared to be going very smoothly indeed. And really these good people looked very nice, quite presentable. It was astonishing what a lot of well-bred people took to the stage nowadays! Still, Lady Challenger was just a little displeased. She had particularly desired a few words with 'Hester Walters,' and that heroine not yet arrived.
"She could not possibly come down with the rest of us," the manager explained. "She has a sick relative with whom she desired to stay until the last moment. We brought her dresses with us and she will be here herself by the 7.46, which stops here. She knows that it is only a few minutes' walk across the park. I am sorry that your Ladyship should be disappointed."
"You see I am acquainted with real convicts," Lady Challenger smiled. "I am a frequent visitor at Oldchester Prison. Some most interesting cases there, I assure you. Not real criminals, but poor creatures unable to resist a sudden temptation."
"Wasn't there an accident at Oldchester last night?" Trenor asked.
"Oh, yes; might have been very serious indeed, Mr. Trenor. An escape of gas and an explosion that wrecked part of the building. Happily, no lives were lost, though some of the creatures were badly hurt. I'm told that they are in a sad state of confusion."
Lady Challenger tripped away, having seen that her guests were made free of the house. She was pleased to find that they afforded quite an attraction in themselves. There were young people present who were glad of the chance of talking to real actors and actresses. They spread over the lovely old grounds, they explored the woods and shrubberies, relating their experiences to knots of appreciative listeners.
As the hour for the performance drew near Mr. Trenor began to feel anxious. It was a little past the time now and Miss Hillhouse, who was down to play 'Hester Walters,' had not put in an appearance. If she had missed her train, then the performance would be spoilt. Fortunately, she did not come on till the middle of the first act, so that the curtain could go up without her. She came presently, in the nick of time, breathless and full of apologies. The train was late, she had missed the pathway in the gathering darkness, and had had a nasty fall over some brambles. She had managed to blunder into a boggy marsh, so that she was splashed and muddy. The long coat that hid her from head to foot was a mass of clay.
Trenor stared at her with open-mouthed amazement.
"But I don't understand," he stammered, "You are not Miss Hillhouse at all. In that case——"
"I quite forgot to explain," the newcomer gasped. "Miss Hillhouse could not come at the very last moment. She was detained, and telephoned to Messrs. Blank, who sent for me at once. Fortunately, I have played the part quite recently, so you need not be nervous on that score. Mr. Blank gave me my instructions, and I came as fast as I could. My name is Hill."
"Almost the same as Hillhouse," Trenor smiled. "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you before."
"I am Australian," Miss Hill explained. "I have been touring in America and Africa. I only arrived in London a week ago. I suppose I shall be able to manage with my predecessors outfit and make-up. I presume that it is here. Let me get to my dressing-room at once. And could you procure me a few sandwiches and a glass of champagne? I missed my dinner to-day, intending to dine late, and I had to come away without a meal at all."
Trenor was only too delighted. The anxiety was off his mind now, and everything was going smoothly. Miss Hill ate her sandwiches and drank her champagne with a fine healthy appetite. Trenor examined her make-up with an approving eye. Miss Hillhouse's convict-dress fitted her as if it had been made on purpose. There was no mistake about the strength and power of her performance either. Miss Hillhouse had been just a little too refined and ladylike for the part. The audience seemed to feel it too. They were quite carried away by the force and fire of the wronged heroine's acting. When the curtain fell on the first act there was a perfect hurricane of applause from the stalls and from the packed mass of farmers and tenantry behind. Lady Challenger came fussing into the dressing-rooms in her kindly way, bent upon making the acquaintance of Miss Hill.
"We are charmed—delighted!" she said. "Really, you carried us right away. And I understand that you were so good as to come here at the very last moment. And you have had nothing since lunch but a few poor sandwiches and a glass of wine. Have you a long wait now?"
"Not more than half an hour," Miss Hill explained. "I don't have to change my dress at all."
"Capital!" Lady Challenger explained. "Then you will have time to get a proper meal. The house is more or less in a state of chaos, so I make no apology for asking you to have supper in my dressing-room. I have had it set out for you there. I will take you there myself, and I will arrange for the call-boy to fetch you directly you are required. Only you must not mind if I do not remain with you—I have so many little duties to attend to."
Miss Hill appeared to be overwhelmed by all this kindness. Indeed, it was a great deal more than she had any right to expect. And, after all, she was only doing what she was paid to do. Out in Australia and South Africa she had really known what hardships were. Nevertheless, she was quite ready to avail herself of this pleasing hospitality. She had a splendid appetite, and the sandwiches had not gone very far. One point she was firm upon—she was not going to trespass too far on Lady Challenger's good nature. She quite understood how busy the latter must be.
"Please do not consider me for a moment," she said. "I have given you too much trouble already. I shall not feel comfortable until you return to your guests, Lady Challenger. They will call me directly my presence is needed on the stage again. Please, please do not wait."
Lady Challenger took the speaker at her word. The performance went its smooth way until the final fall of the curtain and the inevitable triumph of virtue over vice. Then Miss Hill hurried upstairs, just as she was, to finish her supper, coming down finally to the dressing-rooms after everybody had gone. She was some considerable time in removing her 'make-up' and changing into everyday gait again. In this she good-naturedly refused the services of a dresser.
"I am not going to keep you another moment," she said. "I should have come down before. Go away and get your supper with the rest of them. Tell Mr. Trenor that I shall not be more than half an hour at the outside. If only I had a clean pair of shoes——"
By this time the members of the theatrical company had mingled in the supper-room with the rest of the guests. Lady Challenger was beginning to wonder what had become of Miss Hill. At the same moment the portly, dignified old butler approached Trenor with a certain suggestion of haste, and whispered something in his ear. The message appeared to be slightly incredible.
"The thing is impossible," he said. "It is a joke, a mistake on somebody's part."
"Perhaps it is, Sir," the butler said. "All the same, I shall be glad if you will come and see the young woman for yourself. She is very persistent in what she says, Sir."
Trenor hurried away into the morning-room. There he found a somewhat dishevelled young lady, whose eyes were full of indignant tears. Her dress appeared to be considerably damaged.
"Miss Hillhouse!" Trenor gasped. "What is the meaning of this, please?"
"I only wish that I could tell you," the girl said faintly. "I was coming across the park to-night when a woman encountered me. I stopped to speak to her and she promptly threw me down. She had a knife in her hand, and she threatened to kill me if I called out. She pushed my handkerchief in my mouth, and bound me fast with some rope that she had found somewhere. And there I lay, half dead, till some men found me and brought me here. They were poachers, I expect, for they did not stop. Then I rang the bell and saw the butler, and—well, here I am."
Tenor did some rapid thinking in the next few moments. In the first place, he desired to see Miss Hill without the lease delay. Miss Hill, strange to say, had left the house. She had gone away without the formality of saying good-bye, she had helped herself to certain choice articles from Lady Challenger's wardrobe, including a complete outfit of lingerie and shoes. It was some little time before Lady Challenger could understand the real state of affairs. But it began to come home to her presently, after a brief but painful interview with her maid. Not only was Miss Hill and a portion of her wardrobe missing, but a valuable selection of jewels could not be found. They had gone also.
"But how was it managed?" the bewildered hostess asked. "How did she know, and how did she——"
"May I make a suggestion?" Trenor asked. "I have an idea. It is just possible that, during the confusion following the explosion at Oldchester Prison, one or more of the convicts escaped. The fact might have only just been found out. If Lord Challenger will telephone to the prison he may find that my surmise is correct. Evidently the escaped convict is an actress. She was probably hiding in the grounds to-day, and heard all that she needed to know. A chance conversation gave her the idea. She wanted a change of garments and a good meal. There was a certain amount of risk in the whole business, but it was worth taking. The part of Hester Walters is one familiar to most emotional actresses who travel with stock companies. Really, it was quite easy."
Lord Challenger returned to the library presently with a grave face.
"Mr. Trenor is quite right," he explained. "I got the Governor of the prison on the telephone. It appears that two of the women are missing. One is Louisa Reynards, an Australian who has had a deal of experience on the stage. After hearing this I had the dressing-room searched, and surely enough I found the real convict garb worn by the impudent impostor. She actually came here in her convict-dress, with Miss Hillhouse's cloak over it. But she cannot be far away."
"I expect she is," Trenor said. "A woman like that generally knows a thing or two. There are at least two score of motors in the stables belonging to your various guests. Miss Reynards either took one of these on her own hook, or she persuaded one of the drivers to take her, say, as far as Barham Junction, where she could easily get a train to town. Once there, it is pretty certain that she can find friends to help her, especially as she has jewels that she can turn into money. I only hope that your Lordship will not blame us for the disaster."
Lord Challenger was a just man, and he didn't. One of the cars was missing, to return at the end of an hour and a half with an explanation that fitted in with what Trenor had suggested. Lady Challenger listened ruefully; she had no hope of seeing the actress or the jewels again, and in this she was not destined to a pleasant surprise.
"It has been a successful day, all the same," she told her husband. "But I don't think I shall try theatricals in the future. They are a little too dramatic for my taste."
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