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Title: The Man in Possession
       REAL DRAMAS Part 5
      (Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent)
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200741h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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(Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent)

No. 5: The Man in Possession.


Fred M White

The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 28 August, 1909.

That kind of thing is very amusing when it takes the form of a Christmas story in a theatrical paper; but to those who know, the element of tragedy is not lacking. There is no more light-hearted and cheery soul than your Thespian, but he finds no real amusement in the knowledge that he is stranded, practically penniless, in a strange town where credit is impossible and he himself is more or less an object of suspicion. It requires a stout heart to face a poor landlady at the end of the first week with the information that her rent and the little odds and ends will not be forthcoming. It is harder still when there is a woman in the case.

There was nothing new in the situation—it had happened hundreds of times, and it will happen some hundreds of times more. Mr. Clarence Crawshoy, of the West End theatres, the darling of fashion and the admired of kings, had, in a fit of absent-mindedness gone off on the Saturday evening with the week's exchequer, and there was no indication that he had the slightest intention of returning. That astounding fur coat, those darling white spats, and that brilliant (Alaska) diamond stud would awaken envy in the hearts of 'The Indian Girl' company no more. In other words, they had come 'up against' the inevitable provincial tour swindler, and most of them were penniless. It is all very well for Raymond Duke to tell the story now to his guests in Hill Street after coming home from his own theatre in London; but it was a very different Raymond Duke who crept along to the shabby little lodgings over the news-shop in High Street, Marborough, to tell his pretty little wife what had happened.

"I felt sure that that man was a rascal," Netta Duke said.

"We all knew it," Duke groaned. "We knew it from the first. We felt it before we began to rehearse the show. Still, when one's been 'out' for ten weeks, anything is good enough to risk. The mischief is done, Netta. I've got ninepence and you have one-and-two. Mrs. Meekins's bill will be at least twenty-five shillings. I wonder what she will say when I tell her."

It was no easy task. It never is an easy task for an honest, sensitive-minded man to explain that he really is not a rascal, when all the time hard fact testifies to the contrary. Mrs. Meekin was distressed; she declared (with truth) that she had suffered like this before. She declared (also with truth) that theatricals had gone away vowing a cheque next Friday, and that, like the Good Samaritan, she had seen their face no more. She relaxed slightly, finally she wept and produced something charming in the way of supper, alleging (not with truth this time) that the good things had come as a present from her sister in the country. It was all very funny, very human, and very real.

'The Indian Girl' company met next day in conference. Something had to be done. They had played all the week to fairly good business, for Marborough is a thriving little place and trade was good. But for a lamentable weakness of Mr. Clarence Crawshoy in connection with the '3 o'clock race,' things might have been far more propitious. But that was all over now. Something had to be done. They were a mixed crowd, and a variety entertainment looked the proper course to adopt. The Mayor and many of the leading citizens were approached; by midday on Monday, Marborough had heard the story. And on the whole, Marborough behaved very well.

'The Indian Girl' company did not ask for much. They had a week's rent of the hall to pay, their landladies and laundresses to satisfy, and a further week's provisions to buy. If this could be cleared off and railway fares to London provided, all would be well. It sounded a modest programme enough, but it represented a capital sum of not far short of fifty pounds.

The benefit performance was fixed for Friday night. All being well, the company would leave for London the same evening somewhere about twelve o'clock. Enough money had been taken during the week to keep things going, and Friday was expected to wipe out the deficit altogether. There was every promise of a bumper house. It was late on the Friday afternoon that the sinister rumours began to go round. Confirmation came from Signor Biardi, the world-renowned conjurer, who arrived in Marborough to attend a children's party in the evening.

"Lord bless you," he told Duke and some of the others. "What I couldn't tell you about Clarence Crawshoy isn't worth knowing. Bad egg from the start, dear boys! Been doing this kind of thing for years. Dealing with anybody but a crowd of professionals, he would have found himself in gaol long ago. Oh, there are no flies on Clarence Crawshoy!"

"But how can he possibly hurt us?" Duke asked.

"Easy as falling off a house, dear old chap," the Signor explained. "Crawshoy only skipped as far as Middlesborough. Saw him there yesterday. Trying to borrow the price of a brief to London. Good thing for you if he'd raised it. Because he knows what is going on here, and he's hatched a pretty little conspiracy to get his share of it. You see, in law, he is still responsible for the hall here; he owes a good bit for printing, and there is a judgment out against him on this account. He's got a little sweep of a printer in Middlesborough to buy up this debt for a sovereign or two, so that he stands your creditor. It's a goodish sum that is owing, and if this little man comes along about half past seven to-night and takes possession of your box-office, where are you? He can take every cent until his debt is paid, and that will just about clear you out. He'll come over with some County-court official, and it will be too dangerous to defy him. Afterwards he will divide the swag with Crawshoy, and all will be well, as the melodrama says."

"Do you know this as an absolute fact?" Duke asked anxiously.

"I do," the Signor said solemnly; "I had a bit of printing done at the same shop, and the foreman, who is a decent sort, told me. Fact is, he asked me to give you a tip."

All this was pleasant hearing! A fair sum of money had resulted from the sale of tickets, but quite another was calculated as the takings at the door. Unless something in the nature of a miracle happened, love's labour would be lost. They debated the matter solemnly and seriously for the best part of an hour. The low comedian began to see his way.

"This is decidedly a case where strategy is required," he said. "It is no time for half measures. Signor Biardi, kindly favour me with some particulars of this creditor of ours. Tell me something as to his personal appearance and his characteristics. Is he an athlete?"

"Oh, Lord, no!" Biardi responded. "Anything but. A greasy, nervous little beggar—sort of a man who would do anything for money. The loss of it would arouse what little pluck he has. He isn't looking forward to coming here at all. He'll probably leave the County-court bailiff at some eminent pub, and come personally to make a compromise. He'll be content with twenty pounds. And ready to make a 'sacrifice' to save anything in the way of unpleasantness."

"Webster, the 'low-comedian merchant,' smiled. He was seeing his way quite clear now.

"The little blackguard shan't get a penny," he said. "Only leave it to me and we shall quit the place by the advertised train with all the swag in our pockets. We shall have time to pay everybody, and clear out at the cost of paint and a few feathers. Only the programme must be altered slightly. I am going to give an imitation of an Indian snake-charmer. Miss Elaimi is lending me the tame pythons she uses in the title-role of 'The Indian Girl.' My show was intended to be a burlesque, of course. As a matter of fact, the audience will be deprived of the opportunity of interviewing that masterpiece of humour. It is a thousand pities, but in the circumstances it can't possibly be helped. Duke, when the time comes, you will have to announce that, owing to a sudden indisposition, the snake-charming scene will be omitted. See that the minion from the County-court is tracked down to the pub, where, doubtless, he will be in waiting, and arrange for him to be placated with unlimited beer. This is only a precaution, but it will be just as well for us to take it. Rig up the little dressing-room on the prompt side as an office, and when our little printer comes, see that he is shown into the office at once. 'On with the dance, let joy be unconfined,' and all that sort of thing. Pay everybody, say good-bye, and look out for me at the last moment at the station. Meanwhile, advance me ten shillings."

"What for?" Duke asked prudently.

"Why, to save the situation, of course. As a matter of fact, I am going to buy half-a-dozen of those sand-bags they used here in the winter time to keep the cold air from coming in between the window sashes. They are long bags in red flannel. If you want to know what they are required for, I shall decline to tell you. Let it be sufficient that they are intended to save the situation. The rest of the dark and bloody secret is mine."

And Webster refused to say any more. He departed armed with his half-sovereign, and for the rest of the afternoon was conspicuous by his absence. Spies from the theatrical camp carefully watched the trains from Middlesborough, and just after half-past six a message arrived to the effect that the force was in sight and was bearing down on the hall. Presently the rear-guard called a halt at the Three Compasses, where he was speedily joined by an affable carpenter, who loudly proclaimed the fact that he had had a good day starting-price betting, and was almost morbidly anxious that all and sundry should share his good fortune. In this way half the invading force was speedily, permanently disposed of—the conscientious carpenter had seen to that.

A shock head of black hair and a greasy face was thrust into the box-office window, and a voice, intended to be firm, asked for Mr. Duke. The box-keeper was politeness himself. He understood that Mr. Duke was down in his office checking the takings, and would the gentleman go and see him there? The gentleman in question intimated that he desired nothing better. All he wanted was his share of the plunder and to avoid anything like a personal explanation with the boys in the gallery. He began to take fresh heart of grace, and the large lump at the back of his throat was diminishing rapidly. An attendant ushered him into the office, and banging the door, hurried back to his duties.

A figure bent over the desk under the gaslight—a figure the like of which the little printer had never looked upon before. The figure rose to his full height and glanced at the intruder. His face was black as ink, his hair hung over it in long ringlets. His brow was surrounded by a great headdress of feathers that hung far behind. The dress on the whole reminded the printer of the literature of his boyhood. Here was the dusky Redskin of the plain, palpable and in the flesh. It was also palpable that he was exceedingly annoyed. He advanced with a threatening gesture.

"What is it the little white man desires?" he asked. "Why does he intrude upon us when our heart is turned towards the great Maker of the Universe? Why does he pollute the hour of meditation?"

The printer stammered something to the effect that it was all a mistake. The Indian stalked solemnly across the room and locked the door. He appeared to be muttering incantations. Then, to the sweating horror of the printer, he plunged his brown arms into a basket on the table and produced a glittering, scaly, writhing mass of living snakes. They wriggled over the table.

"Take one," the Indian said hospitably. "Take two—take the blooming. The dusky children of the forest are long as my eye is on them. But don't move, don't so much as wink an eyelid, or you are lost. Folks say that I am mad. They lie in their beards. It is for a penance that I am doing this thing in your land of fogs and snow. The Great Spirit ordained it and I obey him. I yearn for no blood tonight, the desire for peace is upon me."

He advanced upon the timid printer and coiled two snakes about his neck. The intruder collapsed into a chair, the snakes writhed and wriggled on the floor. Then very carefully and solemnly, the Indian collected them into his basket again. With dry lips the printer essayed to speak.

"Silence," the Indian whispered. "The spirits are abroad and they will hear you. Even the snakes like like death in their presence. Behold, pale-face, look for yourself!"

He took up the basket again and dragged from it a pile of those loathsome reptiles. He tossed them about the floor, by the door, along the skirting, where they lay absolutely still and motionless. To a terrified and distorted imagination they were snakes—they could be nothing else but snakes. All the same, they were nothing else but window-bags filled with sand and procured at an outlay of some few shillings. But they served the purpose as if they had been so many cobras.

"Now let us understand that the spirit is upon us," the Indian said solemnly. "Do not move until I return, as you value your safety. Anon, paleface, I will join thee again. Bit if you move. .. I will turn down the gas—ah, have I already warned thee of thy fate, rash man?"

The printer uttered no further protest. He sat there in the dark, listening to the noise and bustle outside; he heard the clock strike the hour of eleven. He became aware of the fact that the silence was getting more and more oppressive. The clock struck twelve, the hoot of a distant railway whistle told him that the last train for London was starting, but he did not connect that fact in any way with his imprisonment. That confounded Indian had forgotten all about him, of course. And he sat there with his feet drawn up, trembling and sweating in the knowledge that death in a score of hideous, creeping shapes was all around him. Finally, he fell into a weary slumber, and there the daylight found him, cold and uncomfortable, but not forgotten.

"The beggar swallowed it like milk," the low comedian explained, amidst shouts of laughter, as the train proceeded towards London. "Never saw such a state of funk in your life. Only shows you what imagination will do even for the most practical of us."


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