Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

How The Rich Live

This is to be a talk about some wealthy men that I have known and heard of. I was once a wealthy man myself; a friend of mine confessed to me quite lately that he had been a capitalist in his day; and then there is a great figure in musical history, known well enough for his work, but not generally recognised as being amongst the very rich. To begin with my friend. This is Mr. Lenville, the well-known actor. We were talking the other day as we often do talk about the old times of the stage, of which I know a very little, and he a great deal; the old times being understood to be somewhere between thirty and forty years ago. There is no doubt that they were bad old times. Now a bright young gentleman “walks on” for six months or so. He has little paragraphs in the papers about the amazingly brilliant way in which he walks on, and how interesting it is that he should walk on at all. Then he has a small part; and there are portraits and clever caricatures as well as paragraphs. Then he models in clay a little, and the public interest, as the paragraphists declare, is enormous, so that he gets quite a large part and delivers it so naturally that very few people beyond the front row of the stalls hear a word he says. The bright young man’s fortune is then made. Things were very different in the time of which Mr. Lenville was talking. In those days people had to learn how to act before they were heard of in the western theatres of London. They learned how to act by playing dozens, hundreds of parts in all sorts of obscure playhouses in the country and in the unknown suburbs. They laboured in stock companies in northern towns, at the Britannia, Hoxton; they went on tour in repertory. They were hungry for experience and for bread and cheese and beer. They tried the booths for a while, some of them, and learned what “nunty munjare” means, and how to put the “portable” together, take it to pieces, and get the snow off the roof; also to paint scenery and manufacture dress shirts and shoes and mediæval armour out of white paper, American cloth, and sheet tin, and, by the way, to learn the text of any part ever written in rather less than no time. I remember one of the old stock managers saying to me:

“So I made up my mind to put up ‘Venice Preserved,’ and gave the company three days for study. The Heavy Man said to me: ‘Look here, I can’t study the Cardinal in three days.’ I talked to him. ‘You play the Heavy Lead, don’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I can’t study 500 lengths in three days.’ ‘Well, the Cardinal is the heavy part, isn’t it?’ ‘I know.’ ‘Then,’ said I, ‘you’d better go’; and one of the Responsibles took it on, and was perfect on the night.”

Well, it was of such times as those that Mr. Lenville was telling me. He and his friend, Mr. Folair, were in a very bad way. There was nothing doing, and very little to eat. So the two of them walked up one fine morning to the Grand, Islington, where a stock company was running, in the hopes of getting an engagement. But there was no vacancy. They came out into the sunlight, with twopence between them, and walked over to the Angel, and, boldly entering the public bar, ordered a pint of four ale, which they drank slowly, in alternate sips, out of the pewter pot. And as they drank, they discussed the best way to walk home. This was an easy problem for Lenville, who lived in Marylebone, but a formidable business for Folair, an inhabitant of uttermost Hammersmith. And so Lenville gave his views on the subject of the shortest cut to Hammersmith, illustrating his remarks by drawing a kind of diagram, or map, with his stick on the sawdust of the floor.

“Here you see,” said Lenville, “you get up by Portobello Road,” and drew the stick firmly along in the direction of Notting Hill Gate. Something glittered in the disturbed sawdust. The two men hardly dared to believe in that which they saw. It was a half-sovereign — otherwise wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. “Do we hand it over to the barman?” whispered Folair. Lenville replied in words which signified that they emphatically didn’t, and as he spoke his pipe dropped from his hand on to the floor. He picked it up, and soon after the pair of players were having some more beer and sharing the change.

“And I never felt so well off before or since.” So Mr. Lenville ended his tale.

And I, too, I have known wealth in my day. I was living in Queer Street at the time, a quiet place enough to look at, but not really so quiet as it seemed, being close to a certain Grove, where there are streets even queerer. Well, in those days, I went out regularly to get the supper beer. Not in the honest, manly way of the Briton, who carries the jug in his hand and boldly enters the jug and bottle department, rejoicing in the brown foam that crowns the vessel. This was too high for me; so I used to go to the saloon bar and buy a quart bottle of beer and smuggle it back in a bag or great coat pocket, the whole being done in a very careless, easy manner. But one night there was only fivepence-halfpenny in the house. It is true the bottle of beer cost only fourpence; but it was my custom every evening to have a small glass of something with bitters in it. This cost threepence; and I was ashamed to go to the public-house and omit this decorative part of the ceremony — and yet there was only fivepence-halfpenny in the house. And then, as I fumbled aimlessly, desperately, about in odd corners and disused places, there appeared and was manifested in a dusty drawer, a shabby little old purse, with a broken fastening. I opened the purse, and at the bottom of it was a sixpence and a shilling, both black from lying by. How rich, how glorious a superfluity! I tasted in their acutest savours the delights of wealth!

The last story of the wealthy was told of himself by the mighty John Sebastian Bach. When he was a lad — it was soon after his voice had broken — he had a great desire to hear an illustrious organist of Hamburg, one Reinken. Bach was very poor, and the long journey had to be done on foot, and coming back, he found himself a far way from his home, with hardly any money left in his pockets. He sat down on a bench outside an inn, very hungry, very weary. Suddenly, a window was opened, and two herring heads fell at Bach’s feet. He picked them up; there might be a scrap or two of herring left that he might eat. And behold! he found on examination that in each head was a piece of gold. He never found out how it had happened, but, refreshed, he went back and heard the great Reinken once more, and was able to go on his way home at ease and rejoicing.

So much of wealthy men. I once knew a poor man. He was a country squire with an income of ten thousand a year, in the time when ten thousand bought twice as much as it will buy to-day. This squire wished very violently to set up a coach and four, and to possess a steam yacht; but found that he could hardly afford the upkeep of both. In the end, he fixed on the coach, and drove it about bravely enough and tried to smile. But he longed all the while, very bitterly and grievously, for the steam yacht.

I was sorry for him.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38