Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 14

Base is the slave that pays.

A number of the settlers having preferred a request to that effect, the whole of the “play actors” of Emu Plains received permission to go with all their paraphernalia to perform a play at a distant part of the Nepean settlement.

Proud was the manager, great was the bustling importance of the Company, and by the first light of the day appointed, the “scenery, machinery, dresses and decorations” of the Emu Theatre having been transferred to a settler’s dray, all were en route to the scene of action — a large barn belonging to the keeper of a very small inn, who had kindly lent the edifice for this purpose; of course, solely for the amusement of his neighbours, without the slightest expectation of prospective advantage to himself. Notwithstanding his disinterested feelings, however, after the corps dramatique had been hard at work for a couple of hours, Boniface, rubbing his hands, came in to the quondam theatre and expressed his admiration in glowing terms of all that he saw, winding up a most flowery speech by enquiring whether it was not a dry job, at the same time hinting obliquely at the excellent qualities of a beverage composed of good rum and peach cider, of both which his stock was immense, adding that as no doubt the performance would amply remunerate the Company, he would not object to supplying the members thereof with refreshment for the day on credit, always providing his account should be liquidated as soon as the play was over.

These terms having been joyfully acceded to by, the thirsty Thespians, a sample of the much-vaunted drink was obtained, and although it was not quite equal to nectar — as the cider was something of the sharpest, and the rum rather peppery — yet to men from Emu Plains it appeared very superior. About noon, too, a servant came, who in the name of her master, the inn keeper enquired if any of the players wanted dinner. Accordingly, all adjourned to the kitchen, where salt beef and pork, abundance of greens, and the unvarying damper awaited their appetites. This sumptuous feast was duly crowned by libations, though sooth to say, the tender care of their host prevented their getting drunk, because the rum, though very pungent and very hot, was also very weak, being, in nautical phrase, only equal to three-water grog, and thus did not disturb the acting powers of even the most weak-headed among the theatricals.

The performances of the evening having closed amid rapturous applause, a good jollification was resolved on. But alas, as Burns has sung,

The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft agley.

All unforeseen difficulty arose; the innkeeper insisted on payment of his bill before any fresh supplies were afforded. On examination of this ingenious document, it appeared each performer owed him one pound two shillings and sixpence for drink, dinner and supper, both of these repasts being charged at three shillings per head, and the remainder made up of pints of rum, gallons of cider, and ditto, ditto . . . almost without end. Now, as is customary in such cases, the debtors could not by any process be brought to believe that they had actually obtained even half the liquor charged against them, and the obdurate creditor vowed most solemnly that he had served the whole of it himself. To add to the mischief, it was found on investigation, that after paying a few trifling claims for nails and other minor incidental expenses, the receipts would but admit of a dividend of thirty shillings to each principal player in the Company and the stipulated wages of the supernumeraries — scene-shifters and others.

Indeed, as each man’s share of the bill was alike, the Company actually owed more than their gross receipts; but on this being explained, the landlord at length agreed to take what the lower rate of performers obtained in full from them, if the others would cash up the amount of his claim on each of these. Further, he said he thought himself and the chief constable might persuade their superintendent to let the Company remain where they were and play again one more night; which he kindly volunteered to do, and in the mean time — always after a settlement — would let the Thespians go on again with a fresh score, on the faith of their next night’s receipts.

This arrangement being at once acceded to, the disinterested landlord received instantly by far the greater portion of the collection made by the theatrical treasurer, and then the Company began again to enjoy themselves, free from the dreadful thoughts of the reckoning, which was thus procrastinated twenty-four hours, at any rate. The next morning, betimes, Manager King called a council of his trusty coadjutors and opened to them a most brilliant device of his own composition, by which he doubted not to astonish the natives in general, and none more so than their kind confiding host in particular, who had been so fluent of his beverage and so cunning with his chalk; this notable plan was to be put into execution at the close of the evening’s amusement and was rapturously acceded to by his fellow-convicts, who deemed it would form a most appropriate finale to the amusements of the night.

They now partook of breakfast; and after a couple of glasses of grog by way of stimulus to repair the ravages made by their last night’s jollificationtion in the sensorium of each, the most eloquent of the performers were dispatched in small parties to make a circuit of the settlers dwelling near, exhibiting in each house a play-bill, to compose which Rashleigh had exhausted nearly all his powers of persuasive oratory, in setting forth the magnitude of that night’s attractions at their temporary theatre, enumerating the various points of allurement quite as grandiloquently as a London manager of a minor theatre, and winding up with the awful annunciation that it was most positively their last exhibition at that place. The ambassadors were also commissioned to explain to the expected guests such reasons good as compelled them to believe the last assertion, namely, that the passes of the histrionic heroes would expire that day.

Rashleigh, backed by a new and youthful recruit, whose beardless face well suited the female parts he sustained, made his rounds, meeting with many promises of attendance and much rude hospitality from all the small settlers round about. This was a period of most universal merriment, indeed, a sort of prescriptive saturnalia in society of that sort every year, but doubly so upon this occasion, when the agriculturists, for the first time in seven years, were blessed with overflowing garners teeming with grain. In every hut, therefore, was then to be found a keg, filled, not with choice Jamaica, but with its fiery prototype from Bengal; and mirth and revelry was the order of both day and night.

Evening drew nigh as they returned to their companions, when the manager announced to our adventurer that all was prepared for the successful dénouement of the preconcerted plot to form the finale of the night; and after each had partaken of a refreshment, it was time to dress for the play.

An early hour had been fixed upon for commencing, because, it being Saturday night, they wished the whole bill of fare, which was rather a long one, should be gone through before midnight. The barn — beg pardon, theatre — was crammed to over-flowing; many, who would not be turned away, were accommodated on the roof; and each new point elicited rapturous bursts of applause. But as soon as every thing was done with, either of the scenery or of the valuable properties, it was slyly and noiselessly withdrawn through an opening, which had been clandestinely contrived in the slabs of the barn; and at last, when the drop-scene fell, Manager King was the only performer left in the house. All the others had followed their paraphernalia, which, as it was removed, had been placed in a dray hired for the purpose, and kept concealed at a short distance, among some swamp oaks in a dell by the riverside, where the whole party now waited with impatience the arrival of their manager.

That eloquent personage, among whose other attributes was a most fluent “gift of the gab”, and who was not at all annoyed at any opportunity of exhibiting his oratory, amused the audience fully a quarter of an hour by his facetious farewells, returning thanks for the distinguished honour of their patronage, etc. Finally, perceiving a movement towards the door on the part of some impatient persons who wished to be at home, Manager King, amid a profusion of bows that would have done honour to a dancingmaster, each too, in accordance with approved theatrical taste, much lower than its predecessor, himself at length withdrew through the aperture before mentioned, carefully closing it after him, and leaving to the landlord, in liquidation of his claim, the drop-scene — which, by the by, was so foully abused by its antiquity that it had long been laid aside as condemned, even at the Emu Theatre — and about a dozen rough, battered tin sconces, with the ends of candle they contained. These were all the available assets they resigned to their creditor in satisfaction of his demand for the previous night’s festivity, their meals that day, and an awful accumulation of lush supplied these runagates by their too confiding host during the last twentyfour hours.

Boniface, who was himself in the theatre at the close of the performance, had vigilantly assisted the money-taker at the door, kindly volunteering his services, not only to prevent any from evaporating without payment, but also, by jocular railleries and reproofs of their stinginess, to stimulate those who did offer cash to exert unwonted liberality. After all the auditory had departed, the landlord remained near the orchestra, in patient expectation of the advent of the performers from behind the scenes. As there was no other outlet from thence — that he knew of — he made himself certain they must pass by him before they could leave the scene of their histrionic display, and probably the worthy Knight of the Spiggot consoled himself by casting up the “tottle of the whole”, as Mr Hume would say, and jingling imaginary coins in his breeches pockets, to be derived from the proceeds of the theatrical treasurer, whose harvest he was certain, from ocular demonstration, must have been a pretty productive one.

At length, however, finding the actors did not make their appearance, and hearing no sound emanate from their supposed retreat, the profound stillness of the whole theatre forming, too, a complete contrast to the merry shouts of jolly Bacchanalians whom he could hear noisily revelling away at his own house — which incident also demanded his early attention, in order that he might assist in the operations of his trusty coadjutors of the rum-keg — the landlord clambered over the rails which divided the orchestra from the pit, climbed upon the temporary stage, lifted the ragged curtain, and, after an awful pause, plucked up heart of grace and boldly entered the sanctum sanctorum of the sons of Thespis.

Here the bewildered Boniface could scarcely credit the evidence of his eyes. By the almost expiring rays of a single morsel of candle end, he could see neither scenery nor actors, and what puzzled him more, he could by no means conceive how they had contrived to get out, as there was then no opening whatever visible; and he at last well-nigh decided in his mind that they must be conjurors as well as comedians. Brimful of wrath, he hastened to his home to institute enquiries, which, it is almost needless to add, proved all in vain. Not one of the many persons there knew which way the fugitives had fled, and the advanced hour, with the darkness of the night, rendered pursuit at that moment hopeless. Vowing bitter vengeance against these delinquents, whom he stigmatised as monsters of most odious ingratitude, the irate man of reckonings was reluctantly compelled to bottle up his anger as well as he could for the present and defer until daylight any ulterior measures.

In the mean time, Manager King and his hopeful squad had pursued their journey merrily, keeping down in a grassy valley, where the turf offered no noisy impediments to their progress, until they reached one of the many rapids, or falls, in that part of the Nepean, which are often crossed by such wayfarers as eschew the payment of puntage. Here they waded the stream, and having gone but a little distance along the opposite bank, called a halt in a little sunken spot that promised to prevent their fire from attracting the attention of any wanderers. There they kindled a blazing flame and began to busy themselves in preparing a feed, the basis of which, I regret to record, had been procured from the victimised host under the pretence of a stage supper necessary in the course of their night’s performance, but which — with near two gallons of his much extolled beverage that they had secreted and brought with them to do honour to the occasion — had not been paid for as yet; and indeed, to say truth, if the wills of those about to consume it were to be consulted, the payment for the whole was like enough to be procrastinated ad graecas kalendas.

Here hilarity prevailed to an unusual extent, the staple fun with which their jokes were seasoned being all levelled at the luckless landlord; and many most witty conjectures were hazarded as to the length, breadth and depth of the astonishment which that worthy and liberal soul would exhibit upon making the disagreeable discovery that he had been so deeply done. The performers did not drink much, however, as they conjectured that mine host would make his complaint to their commandant, and they wished to appear before that awful officer in full possession of all their powers of reason.

About sunrise they arrived at home, and having unloaded their valuable effects, each man prepared himself as best he might for the approaching interview. Manager King — who in this, as in all things else, took the lead — promising to stand spokesman on the occasion. About seven o’clock the landlord made his appearance, accompanied by the chief constable, who, however, could scarcely conceal his merriment at the lugubrious tale, told with such unwonted energy, by the suffering subject of the “pla’actors’” peculations.

The landlord made his entrée to the theatre, where he discovered Manager King, dressed in his full suit of Sunday slops, lying apparently asleep in his berth. And that worthy certainly performed the part of one just awakened, to a miracle; for when the visitor enquired what he meant by running away without paying the debt incurred by the Company, jemmy King yawned heavily once or twice, then affected great anger at being so unceremoniously aroused, and at length gave the complainant very deliberately to understand that he, for one, thought the players had already paid dear enough for all that they had received from him; and further, if the landlord expected any more money from them, why, he must get it the best way he could.

On this the other burst out into indignant exclamations against such excessive ingratitude, saying, however, that he expected no less; and at last he started off to lay his lamentation before the superintendent, from whom he confidently expected both redress and sympathy. In a few moments a summons arrived for all the corps dramatique to attend that awe-inspiring official, and being quickly arranged in his sight, he demanded what they had to say for themselves in reply to this charge of fraud.

King, after apologizing for occupying the time of his superior, told all the history of the first day’s proceedings, laying particular emphasis upon the overcharges made by the landlord, as they appeared on the first bill, winding up his oration by a reference to the second account, and appealing to the superintendent whether he thought it at all possible the men then present, who, it was perfectly evident, were unaccustomed to the use of any intoxicating drinks, could have consumed the quantities of spirits charged against them in the space of about thirty-six hours, and still preserve their sobriety, so as to enable them to play both the nights, some of them sustaining three different parts on each — which, he submitted, it would have been quite impossible for them to do if they had even drunk half the liquor the landlord now sought to make them pay for.

The great man seemed rather struck with this defence, and on examining both bills, could not but admit the accuracy of King’s argument. Then, observing that the meals had been charged at three shillings each person, he asked of what viands they consisted; and the homely qualities of the several repasts being asserted by King and admitted by mine host, the superintendent told the latter he could not help thinking that part of the charge too dear by half; and as for the rest of his claim, he (the superintendent) could not believe the men had drunk all the grog stated, because each person’s share would in his opinion make, and keep, any ordinary individual drunk at least for a week, and yet those who the landlord stated had consumed it all in a day and a half now stood before them, apparently as sober as if they had never tasted anything stronger than water.

“At the same time,” concluded the chief, “if you request it, I will order the whole of them to be brought before the bench of magistrates, to answer any charge you may think fit to prefer against them. But I’d recommend you to remember that there is an Act of Council in force, imposing a fine of five dollars for each offence in serving a convict with spirits; so that, perhaps, you might lose more by taking them to Court than you would clear by making them pay, even if you gained your case, which seems rather doubtful.”

In brief, after all, the landlord was compelled to give the business up for a bad job, and console himself by reflecting that what with his first overcharge, and what the audience assembled through means of the performance had expended at his house, he was in the whole a gainer, instead of a loser, by the brothers of the buskin; though he often vowed he never had been so “willainously wictimised” before in all his life.

This was the last occurrence of any note in Rashleigh’s time at Emu Plains; for the two years having now expired to which his stay was limited at first, he was one morning kept back from work, and informed that he had been assigned to the service of one Mr Arlack of Bunbury Curran, since called Airds, and having received directions for his journey, and a pass for his protection, he departed after taking a friendly farewell of his quondam companions belonging to the play-house hut at Emu Plains.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05