Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

Gina of the Chinatown

A Reminiscence

MEMORY is a delicate instrument. Like an old musical box, it will lie silent for long years; then a mere nothing, a jerk, a tremor, will start the spring, and from beneath its decent covering of dust it will talk to us of forgotten passion and desire. Some memories are thus moved at sight of a ribbon, a faded violet, a hotel bill; others at the sound of a voice or a bar of music, or at the bite of a flavour on the palate or an arrangement of skies against a well-known background. To me return all the unhappy, far-off things when I smell the sharp odour of a little dirty theatre near Blackwall. Then I think upon all those essences of life most fragrant and fresh, and upon . . . Gina Bertello.

Gina Bertello was as facile and appealing as the syllables of her name. At thirteen she was the happiest and best-loved child in Acacia Grove, Poplar; for she had those three rare qualities which, together, will carry any pilgrim safely through this world to the higher blisses of the next: she was gentle — and brave — and gay.

You might then have seen her about the streets at all hours of day and night, a frail slip of a kiddie, delicate as a water-colour, swift and restless as a bird. From her little head hung twenty bright yellow curls, short to the neck, and these curls shook and caught the sun fifty times to the minute as she shot her sharp glances, which rested on nothing and yet reflected everything. Liquid fire seemed to run under the light skin, and the lines of her figure, every one of which had something true to say to you, were of an almost epigrammatic neatness. Small as she was, she was perfectly built, and dressed with that careful contempt for taste which you may observe in the attire of all children of theatrical parents. A black satin frock kissed the slim, stockinged leg at the delicately correct moment; a scarlet band held the waist; a scarlet hat crowned all; and the shock of short curls, chiming with the black and scarlet, made an unforgettable picture which always appealed to the stage sense of her old dad, Batty Bertello. Moreover, there; was the practical advantage that if ever you wanted your Gina in a hurry, when she was out playing, you could always pick her from any bunch of children half-a-mile away. Also, she could never be lost, for she stood alone. Indeed, no child has ever been seen, either in Poplar or in Kensington, of such arresting appearance as this rumple-headed darling who, for twelve months, flitted, in small type, across the bills of the minor music halls. She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm; and when she was taken to theatres or concerts beyond the confines of Poplar where she was known, people turned to stare at her, and turned again to stare. There was about her some elfish quality that made her seem only half real. Even her old dad could not quite believe in her. He fully expected some morning to wake up and find that she had slipped away to the bluebell or daffodil from which she had escaped.

“That youngster of mine,” he would say, “is hot stuff. She don’t half get on. Come round next Sunday night, and we’ll have some music. Y’ought to hear her play. Rachmaninoff prelude, Valse Triste, Mozart sonatas. Fairly tears the back hair off yeh. Got temperament, that kid. She’s coming up, too, with her dancing. Oh, she’s hot.”

Mrs. Bertello would echo him, but a little sadly; for, as Gina grew, from seven to thirteen, so did Mrs. Bertello fade and fade and withdraw more and more up-stage. Gina was going to get on; she knew it. She knew, too, that Gina would get on without any help from her; so she stood in the background and grew careless about herself and her person. She wore old clothes and old manners. She snuffled. She loafed about the house and in bed, and she let things go. If only she could have felt that the getting on of Gina depended upon her. . . . But by the time the child was seven she realised that she stood in the presence of something stronger than herself. It frightened and distressed her that she should have produced something so sharp and foreign. She knew that she was loved and always would be loved. But she wanted most of all to be wanted. And she wasn’t.

At twelve Gina was running the home. Old dad was dresser to a red-nose bill-topper, which meant that he did not finish work until two o’clock in the morning. It was Gina who sat up every night to serve his supper, Mumdear toddled to bed with a little warm whisky, leaving Gina in the kitchen with queer books — Tennyson, Browning, Childe Harold, Lives of the Composers, The Golden Treasury, Marcus Aurelius, The Faerie Queene. At two o’clock old dad would bounce in, full of anecdote and reminiscence and original whimsy, and they would sup together, Gina, from the age of eleven, always taking a glass of beer and a cigarette with him. It was he who had bought her those books. It was he who had interested his guv’nor in the kid, so that the guv’nor had handed him money wherewith to get music lessons and to secure a practice piano. It was he who had spoken to Madame Gilibert, controller of the famous music-hall child-dancers, the Casino Juveniles; and Madame, recognising that dad was dresser to a star, and might, in certain underground ways, be useful, took the child and put her through a course. Within the first week she thought she had found a Taglioni, and that hers would be the honour — and the commission. Of course she hadn’t found a Taglioni, and none knew that better than Gina, though she did not say so, for she believed in taking what we can while we can.

It was old dad, too, who had made a companion of her and talked to her, through those late hours, of the things that could be done in the world — of the things that he himself had tried and failed to do. He had talked to her of laughter and courage and endurance, and of “playing the game.”

From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume. She loved the shops and the stalls, with their alluring treasures — treasures, moreover, that you could buy, not, as in the West, priced beyond your maddest dreams. There was Salmon Lane market. There were the docks. There were the fearsome Malays. There was the Chinese quarter. There was the Isle of Dogs, with its exciting bridges and waterways. There were the timid twilights and the home-comings; the merry boys and girls of the pavements, and the softly lighted windows. She loved them all, and they became all part of her; and she was right in loving them. For Poplar is a land of homes, and where a thousand homes are gathered together, there do we find beauty and prayer. There, among the ashpits and broken boats and dry canals, are girls and garlands and all the old, lovely things that help the human heart to float along its winding courses to the sea. The shapes, sounds, colours and silences of the place shook her to wonder, and the flamboyant curves of the road to Barking, where are lean grey streets of villas and vociferant markets, were always to her the way to the Realms of Gold. Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar. It was all so cosy and sweet and — oh, everything that you couldn’t talk about. The simple mateyness of it all sometimes made her cry. It made her cry because she wanted to tell someone about it; and she couldn’t — until . . . a year later . . . she began to dance. Then she told everything.

In the Chinatown Causeway, too, were half-tones of rose and silver, stately moving cut-throats, up from the great green Pacific, and the muffled wail of reed instruments in a song last heard in Formosa. Cinnamon and aconite, betel and bhang hung on the air. There was the blue moon of the Orient. There, for the bold, were the sharp knives, and there, for those who would patiently seek, was the lamp of young Aladdin. I think Gina must have found it.

She loved Poplar, and, loving so, she commanded love, as you will learn if you inquire concerning her. When she danced it was Poplar that she expressed, and Poplar worshipped her for it.

At twelve years old she was dismissed from the local Board School for the sound reason that the teachers confessed their inability to teach her anything more. She was too sharp for them. Her morality she summed up in answer to a teacher’s question as to what she understood by religion.

“I believe in enjoying yourself, dears, and enjoying other people as well, and making them enjoy you.”

That was her creed, and as to her adherence to it and the efficacy of it you must ask the people of Acacia Grove and thereabouts. Old dad shrugged his shoulders, and in the saloon of the Blue Lantern he explained:

“Ah — when you’ve got anything as hot as our Gina, it don’t do to try and learn ’em things. You can’t. They knew it all centuries before you was born. And what they don’t know they’ll find out without bothering anyone. Give ’em their heads — that’s all you can do with that kind of kid. Stand aside; she’ll develop herself.”

Gina was thirteen years and six months when news was brought one morning to the narrow fastnesses of Acacia Grove that old dad had been killed in a street accident. At that moment she was standing at the gate nursing Philip, the next-door baby.

She stared. She caught her breath as from a sharp blow. Her face was, for the first and only time in her life, expressionless. Then, with a matter-of-fact movement, she deposited Philip on the cold kerb, looked up, addressed the eternities, and for one minute told God, in good set terms, exactly what she thought about Him. When thus relieved, she shrugged her little shoulders and gathered up the baby.

“Ah, well. Hearts are trumps. Globe Polish is the best. The Lord Mayor’s coachman says so, Philip of Macedon. Looks from here, Philip of Macedon, as though I’d have to get busy.”

A week after the funeral, she stood in her dingy bedroom, and posed herself before the mirror with a graceful egotism. The slender stockinged legs looked that morning singularly pert and self-sufficient. The black satin jacket had an air of past adventure amid large things. She adjusted the black lace hat the tiniest shade to the left of the luscious curls, and nodded.

“Well. Something’s got to be done, and if I don’t do it no one else will. Don’t believe in waiting for your ship to come in. Only thing to do is to get a bally boat and row out to meet it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you’ll get a red nose, Gina, my darling. Now off we go to make ourselves as welcome as a snowflake in hell.”

An hour later she was a member of the Casino Juveniles, under the direction of Madame Gilibert, and three hours later was hard at work rehearsing.

Many folk of Poplar must have experienced only a mixed sorrow at the sudden end of Batty Bertello. For if the old dad had not gone out so suddenly Gina would never have been forced to start work to support Mumdear; and had she not started just at that moment, she would never have become a public character; and in that event we should have lost — what should we have lost?

Well, everything that in those days made life worth living. For it was Gina, that mop-haired, fragile baby, who taught thousands of us how to live.

And her beginnings as a public character were in this wise.

The turn of the Casino Juveniles consisted of vocal soli, concerted numbers, pas seuls, and ensembles, in the costumes of the early nineteenth century. It was entitled Old-fashioned Flowers (you may remember it), and, with a nice catholicity, it embraced the minuet and the pavane no less than the latest coon song and dance. At the end of the first show, Madame expressed herself as well satisfied with Gina.

“Seems to have a real — what you might call flare — for the stage. Understands what she’s doing. Made for a dancer. Let’s hope she don’t grow.”

For the tragedy of the good lady’s life was that her children would grow, and every two years or so they had to be weeded out and new little girls laboriously trained to take the places of those who possessed neither the divine grace of the juvenile nor the self-assurance of the adult. She had a much-furrowed face, and swore hybrid oaths at electricians and stage hands. They understood.

For the first week, Gina thoroughly enjoyed herself, and, true to her creed, forced the rest of the company to enjoy her.

Sharp at five every afternoon, she had to appear at the centre where the private omnibus collected the children and whisked them away to the first hall, where they were an early number — on at seven-five — for the first house. Then, out of that hall to another at the far side of London, where they were a concluding number for the first house. Then back to the starting-place for the second house, and off again to finish at the distant hall. At about one in the morning she would trip home to supper, which Mumdear left in the kitchen oven. So to bed. At ten o’clock next morning Mumdear would bring her a cup of tea and a cigarette, and at about noon she would descend, unless a rehearsal were called for eleven.

Then, one brave night, came her chance to display that Ginaesque quality that made her loved and admired by all who knew her. In a low river-side hall in the Blackball direction the Casino Juveniles were the bill-footers. This hall was a relic of the old times and the old manners — a plaintive echo of the days when the music hall was little more than a cave of harmony, with a saw-dusted floor, a husky waiter, and a bull-throated chairman. Efforts to bring it up to date by renovation and structural alteration had only had the effect of emphasising its age, and its threepenny gallery and its fourpenny pit told their own tale.

By this time Gina had, by some subtle means, unknown to herself or to others, established herself as leader of the Casinos. Her compelling personality, her wide knowledge of “things” as well as matters of general interest, and her confident sagacity, had, together, drawn even those youngsters who had been two years with the turn to look to her as a final court of appeal in all questions and disputes. They listened to her ideas of dance, and took cues from her that rightly should have come from the titular leader. Perhaps it was the touch of devil which alternately smouldered and flamed in Gina’s eyes that was the real secret of her domination of her fellows; a touch that came from the splash of soft Southern blood in her veins, bequeathed by a grandfather who, in his early twenties, mislaid his clasp-knife somewhere between the ribs of a neighbour on the island of Sicily, and found it expedient to give up the search for it and come to England. This languorous, sun-loved blood, fused with the steady blood of the North, resulted in a mixture which raced under her skin with the passion and energy of a greyhound, and gave her that mysterious élan which decided, as soon as she could walk, that she was born for dance.

On the big night — a Wednesday: early-closing night — the hall was playing to good business. It was lit with a suave brilliance. Gallery packed, pit packed, stalls packed, and the gangway by the babbling bar packed close with the lads of the water-side — niggers, white toughs, and yellow men.

The air was mephitic: loud with foot and voice and glass. It stunk of snarling song. Solemn smokes of cut plug swirled in a haze of lilac up to the dreary rim of gallery and the chimera of corpse faces that swam above it. At nine-ten Gina and the rest of the Casinos stood in the wings, watching the turn that preceded them on the bill — Luigi Cadenza, the world-renowned Italian tenor: salary three guineas per week for thirteen shows a week — who was handing Santa Lucia and O sole mio to an indifferent audience; for in vaudeville it is the early turn that gets the bird. Near them stood the manager, discussing the Lincolnshire probables with the stage manager. Much dirty and faded scenery, alleged fireproof, was piled to the flies, and on either side were iron doors and stone staircases. Everywhere were strong draughts and crusted dirt.

Suddenly, from behind a sweep of canvas, leapt an antic figure, dishevelled, begrimed, inarticulate. It plucked the manager by the sleeve.

“Wire’s fused, sir. Caught oner the flies. Blazing like old hell.”

The manager jerked his neck at the stage manager.

“Ring down!”

A bell tinkled, and the shabby purple curtain dropped on the world-renowned tenor in the midst of his Santa Luci-i-i-a, and smothered him with confusion and with its own folds.

The neck jerked again.

“Ring down safety, too.”

He shot a hand to the telephone, rang through to the orchestra and spoke two words.

The conductor in front saw the flash of the light at his desk. He bent to the receiver. Two words snapped from it: The King. He replaced the receiver. His baton fell, and the symphony of Santa Lucia dribbled away to rubbish. He mouthed at his leader: The King. He rose in his chair and tapped; and the band blared the first bar of the National Anthem when again the bell tinkled. Again he snatched the receiver: “Cut The King,” snapped a blasphemous voice. “Keep going on Cadenza.”

Behind, things were happening.

“Where’s that damn ‘lectrician?” The manager appealed, exhorted and condemned. The electrician, having carried the bad news, had vanished; but the typhoon of language whirled him back again.

“‘Sail right, guv’nor. ‘Sail right now. We got it under. You can ring up again.”

But it was too late. The sudden dropping of the curtain, the incipient glide and recovery of the safety, the cessation and hurried resumption of the music, had disturbed the house. There were sounds of many moving feet, an uneasy rustle, as when a multitude of people begin to pull themselves together. Then the inevitable fool made the fool’s remark.

“There’s something wrong somewhere. Fire, shouldn’t wonder.”

That word did it.

The house rose to its feet. It swayed in two vast presses to right and left. A woman screamed. Feet scraped and stamped. The chuckers-out bawled:

“Order, there. Kepp yeh seats, cancher! Nothing ain’t wrong!”

The conductor rose and faced the house.

“Resume your seats, please. There’s no danger of any kind. The band will now play Hiawatha. “Give ’em a few chords!” he called to his brass and drums, and half-a-dozen tantararas drowned the noise of the struggles and counter-struggles of those who would go and those who would urge them to stay.

A panicky stripling, seeing a clear way, vaulted the partition between pit and stalls, and was promptly floored by one on the jaw from Hercules in uniform. He howled. Stalls struggled to see him, and the pit pushed the stalls back. Many women screamed. They were carried out, kicking. Men told other men that there was nothing the matter. They clambered on seats to say it. They struck with fist and boot other men who disagreed with them. The yellow and black men dashed hither and thither, receiving many blows but never ceasing to run. They did not know for what or from what they ran. They ran because they ran. A group of lads raided the bar. They helped themselves and they smashed many glasses and bottles. The chuckers-out became oathful and malevolent. They hit right and left.

In the wings, the manager was dumb. His mouth had vomited the entire black vocabulary. He had nothing more to say. The skirts of his dress coat had the appearance of two exhausted tongues. The position of his tie showed that he was a man smitten and afflicted: one who had attempted large things while knowing himself to lack the force necessary to achieve them; one who had climbed the steeps of pain to the bally limit; one who was no longer a man but a tortured organism.

“Billie,” he cried to the red-nose bill-topper, “Billie, for Christ’s sake go on, and quiet ’em, there’s a good chap. This is the sack for me, if there’s a panic.”

“No good, old boy. Sorry. Can’t do anything with a mixed gang like yours. Nearly got the blasted bird just now.”

“Well — you — Miss Gutacre. For the Lord’s sake — go on. Give ’em anything. Give ’em He tickled the Lady’s Fancy”

“Oh, Jack, old man, I daren’t,” whimpered the stout soubrette. “I couldn’t hold ’em. I’ve never faced a gang like that. If Billie won’t go, I won’t. ‘Tain’t fair to ask me.”

“Well, you’re a couple of damn devils, that’s what you are — I beg pardon — I mean. No, but, look here. . . . If — ”

He broke off, suddenly aware that someone was peremptorily agitating his coat-tails.

“What the blazes d’you want, kid?”

“I’ll go on, sir,” said Gina placidly.

“You? What the heaven d’you think a shrimp like you can do?”

“I can hold ’em, sir. I know I can. Bet you what you like. Turn me loose, and see! Ring the orchestra for La Maxixe, one verse and dance.”

“Mr Catanach!” A boy in a disordered uniform sprang from nowhere. “You’re wanted here — quick.”

The manager swung four ways at once, unable to go one way for thought of the others. Then he gave two orders to the stage manager.

“Ring through for the Masheesh. Then send that kid on.”

Gina was one of those delightful people who believe in impulse rather than in consideration. What she had proposed to the manager was an impulse of the moment; it simply didn’t bear thinking about. She could hear the complaints, loud and cruel, of that brute which she had undertaken to tame — she heard scream and roar; stamp of nailed feet; fury of blow against blow; temper against temper; the fall of glass; the wail of the victim, the howl of the aggressor.

But now, through the clamour, there came to her, faint and sweet and far away, the ecstatic wail of La Maxixe, swelling insistently as the curtain swung up. The first bars settled her fears. The music stole into her blood and possessed every nerve and tissue of her eager little body. It was in her feet and her hands and her heart. The stage manager gave her a gentle shove.

“Get on, Kiddie. You got a rotten rough house. Good luck.”

With a toss of her yellow head and a stamp of impetuous feet she dashed on. Along the stage she charged, in animal grace and bravery, once, twice, with loose heel dancing, and noted with approval that the clamour was a little less in volume and that many faces were turned to the stage to look at this small figure, immature yet cunningly finished. With as much clatter as her furious little shoes would produce, she ran to the back-cloth. The dust rose in answering clouds and was blown into the auditorium, where it mingled with the opiate haze and was duly swallowed by the gaping ones. The music surged over the footlights in a compelling flood. The chef d’orchestre had caught the idea, and she could see that he was helping her. The fiddles tossed it to her in a tempest of bows, the brass and wood-wind blared it in a tornado, the drum insisted on it, and, like a breaker, it seemed to rise up to her. Before her opened a cavern of purple, stung with sharp lamps in the distant dusks. It swayed and growled and seemed to open a horrid mouth. But between her and it, she thanked her Heavenly Father, was the music, a little pool of dream, flinging its spray upon her. The stage seemed drenched in it and, seizing the tactful moment, she raced down to the footlights and flung herself into it, caressing and caressed by it, shaking, as it were, little showers of sound from her delighted limbs.

Every phrase of its wistful message was reflected in that marvellously expressive form, rosy and slender and taut. You would have said that each pulse of her body was singing for joy of it, and when her light voice picked up the melody with:

“Oh, meet me in the Val-ley

The hap-py Val-ley,”

interpolated with back-chat to the front rows of the stalls, there was a movement towards repose and attention to this appealing picture.

“Come on, Charl, while there’s a chance, case there’s a fire.”

“No; ‘alf a mo’, Perce. Ain’t no fire. I’m going to watch this. Looks like being funny. Got some pluck, y’know, that youngster.”

She stamped along the stage in a cloud of lace and tossing frock; then, seeing that they were still moving and, in the far reaches, struggling, she loosened her heel and suddenly — off went one shoe to the wings, prompt side. Off went the other to the wings, o.p. This bit of business attracted the attention of Charl and Perce and others. They closed in. Now it was heel-and-toe dancing, and suddenly a small hand shot to her knee. Off came a little crimson garter. With an airy turn of her bare and white-powdered arm she sent it spinning into the stalls. “Scramble for it, darlings!”

“I’ll — tell — you — how I love you —

Down in the Valley.”

The wicked little head ogled, now here, now there.

They scrambled, and while they scrambled and she danced, she bent to her right knee, and off came a blue garter, and away that went, too.

“Share and share alike, old dears.”

This time she had the pit as well.

“My word. She’s a corker, eh?”

“I should say so.”

“Quite right, Augustus,” she cried. “There isn’t a fire here, but I’m hot enough to start one. I love my molten lava, but what price Gina?”

They chuckled. They cheered. They chi-iked.

“Gaw — fancy a kid like that. . . . If she was a kid of mine I’d learn ‘er something.”

In the vaudeville phrase, she had got ’em with both hands.

The lights died down again. The turmoil was confined to the gallery. A lone chucker-out implored them to observe that everything was all right and “Order, please, for the artiste.” The Maxixe swallowed him up.

“Come along, boys!” cried Gina. “Chorus, this time. Now then — one — two ——

“‘I’ll . . . Meet . . .

You . . .

In . . . the

Valley . . . ’”

Very uncertainly and timidly a few at the back of the hall picked it up. They hummed it in the self-conscious voice of the music-hall audience before it is certain that it is not alone. The next few lines were taken with more confidence, and by those in front as well, and the last lines, encouraged by the band and the shrill abandon of Gina, they yelled defiantly, exultingly, with whistles and cheers for the kid.

Those standing up were pressed forward as those behind strove to catch her back-chat with stalls and orchestra.

“Holler, boys,” she cried, shaking her dusty golden head from side to side. “Holler! All together — tenors — basses — Worthingtons. More you holler the more money I get. And if I don’t take some home to my old man to-night I shall get it where Susie wore the beads! Holler, boys: it’s my benefit! Edison–Bell record!”

And they did holler. Away they went in one broad roar. There was no doubt as to whether Gina had fulfilled her promise of holding them. There was no doubt as to whether she had a stage personality. That holler settled it. Gina’s vocation lay in the stress and sacrifice of the vulgar world.

“My word, she’s a little goer, eh?”

“You’re right. At that age, too! Fast little cat. She wants a spanking. And if she was a kid o’ mine she’d get it.”

“How old is she?”

“Fourteen, they say.”

“Lord, she’ll be a corker in a year or two’s time.”

“Year or two’s time. Hot stuff now if you ask me.”

Perhaps she was. But she had saved the situation. She had averted a panic. She had saved the loss of life inseparable from a theatre stampede. And she knew it. As the audience settled down to be amused by her, or by the next turn for whom she had prepared the way, she gave the conductor the cue for the coda, and, with a final stamp of those inspired feet, she leapt into the wings, where the rest of the Casinos awaited her. She was gasping, with drawn face. Two light blue stockings, robbed of their garters, were slipping half-way down her delicately rounded legs. The dust from the stage had gathered on her warm arms. She was plainly “all gone.” But there was a light in her eye and that in her manner that shrieked: “What did I tell you?”

The manager came to meet her.

“You glorious kid!”

Pertly she looked up at him.

“Yes, ain’t I? Going to push a boat out for me?”

“Push a boat out?”

“Yes; I’m dry after that. Mine’s a claret and soda.”

He rumpled his hair to bring it into keeping with his unhappy evening-clothes. He gestured operatically. He embraced the universe. He addressed the eternal verities.

“I’m damned,” he exclaimed, “I’m damned if I don’t book that kid for six months.”

He kept his promise. She was booked at three pounds per week for six months, and she thought she was in heaven. She had never dreamed that there was so much money in the world. Then there was a hurrying to and fro in Acacia Grove. She had to work up an act of her own and provide her own make-up box and dresses. In the former she was assisted by Madame Gilibert and the chef d’orchestre; in the latter by Mumdear and the whole female population of Acacia Grove. Band parts had to be arranged and collected, each instrumental part secured in a neat stiff cover, engraved in gilt letters:






Madame Gilibert sent invitation cards to all managers, and even booked one of the inch-square spaces on the back cover of The Encore, where Gina’s picture duly appeared:


The Marvellous Child Dancer

The Pocket Kate Vaughan

All com. Gilibert.

amid that bewildering array of faces which makes the cover of that journal so distinctive on the bookstall and so deeply interesting to the student of physiognomy and of human nature. So she started as a gay fifth-rate vaudevillian.

A queer crowd, the fifth-rate vaudevillians. They are the outcasts. Nobody wants them. They live in a settlement of their own, whose boundaries are seldom crossed by those from the sphere of respectability. They are unconsidered. They appear; they pass; unmourned, unhonoured and unremembered. The great actor of the “legitimate” is knighted; the musical comedy star is fêted and received everywhere by the Best People; even the red-nose star of the halls is well seen. But the unsuccessful amusers of the public — their portion is weeping and gnashing of teeth. They are by turns gay and melancholy, with the despairing gaiety of the abandoned, the keen melancholy of the temperamental. They are the people who bring us laughter, who help us to forget. They invent and sing songs that put a girdle round the globe, that bring men cheerfully together in Singapore and Tobago and Honolulu and Trinidad, and are shouted under skies East and West and South; and their reward is neither here nor there; not applause or glory or motor cars or a hundred pounds a week. No; four pounds a week is theirs, with reduced rates on the railway and expenses double those of any workman or clerk. To the thoughtful person there is something infinitely pathetic in this; but by the mercy of God your fifth-rate vaudevillians are not thoughtful people. They live in, for, and by the moment; and, be their lives what they may, they are happy; for theirs is the profound wisdom of perpetual youth.

Gina’s six months were filled either at the Blackwall house or at other independent halls, not controlled by the syndicates, to which her manager leased her. When not working — for the twenty-six weeks were to be filled as and when she was called — she spent her time in inspecting other shows and dancers, by the simple use of her professional card. From time to time she varied her turn, as dictated by her own moods and the vagaries of the management. Sometimes she would dance excerpts from Coppelia or Sylvia; sometimes Dvorak’s Humoreske or L’Automne Bacchanale, or odds and ends from French and Russian music. But it was the sparkling sun-soaked melodies of the South, laughing of golden days and silver nights, white towns and green seas, that really held her; for to her music was melody, melody, melody — laughter, quick tears, the graceful surface of things; movement and festal colour. By instinctive choice she had already taken to her heart all Italian music — Pagliacci, La Bohème, Rusticana, Manon, and much of the humbler Neapolitan stuff that somehow finds its way to London. And what music was to her, so was life, and so she interpreted it to others.

Whenever she was billed, all Poplar crowded to see her; and there are still many who remember with high gratitude this lovely flower from their own gutters, and the little escapes from their sorrows that she found for them. They still remember how, passing them in the street, she, clear and steady as the dew at dawn, would but look upon them with roguish nonchalance, compel smiles from them and leave them feeling richer and stronger.

“That girl’s got a heart,” they would say. She shook them from pondering on their problems, lifted them into a rare, bold atmosphere, taught them how to laugh and how to feast; carried to their hearts little bouquets of solace smelling of April and May. She seemed to be born afresh each morning, so sharp and undimmed were her delight and wonder in life. She lit the whole of Poplar with her personality. The flashing of her number in the electric screen was the signal for handfuls of applause. Even those of her audience who had never before seen her went about their routine next day feeling better by remembering her. She splashed colour on their drabbery. She forced them to forget old fusty creeds of conduct, and awoke echoes in them of things that should not have been forgotten; fused into the thin body of their days something ripe and full and clustering; something, as they said, that gave ’em things to think about where before they had been fed up. She tempted them with the lure of the moment, and they followed and found that it was good. She opened new doors to them, showing them the old country to which to-day excursions are almost forbidden; the country of the dear brown earth and the naked flesh, of the wine-cup and flowers and kisses and Homeric laughter. She could have made a Calvinist laugh at sin. Young and wise and understanding, she would sprinkle upon it the dew of her kindly smile, and what had been bare and reprehensible a moment ago was then something tender and full of grace. Through her, all little lapses and waywardnesses became touched with delicacy. We live, we love, we die. A little while we sing in the sun, and then . . . we are gone. So let’s be kind to one another; let’s forgive everything; there’s always an excuse. That was the Ginarian philosophy.

Twice every night she danced, and never once did she seem to “slack.” After the applause welcoming her number, silence would fall on the house. The hall would be plunged sharply in a velvet gloom, through which the lights of the orchestra would gleam with subtle premonition. At a quick bell the band would blare the chord on, and the curtain would rush up on a dark blank stage. Then from between the folds of the back-cloth would steal a wee slip of a child in white, to stand poised like a startled faun. Three pale spot-lights would swim from roof and wings, drift a moment, then pick her up, focusing her gleaming hair and alabaster arms.

With the conductor’s tap the hall would be flooded with the ballet music of Delibes, and the dance would begin, and Gina would turn, for our delight, the loveliest pair of legs in Poplar. On the high vast stage, amid the crashing speed of the music, and the spattering fire of the side-drums, she would seem so fragile, so lost, so alone that one almost ached for her. But if she were alone at first, it was not so when she danced. At the first step she seemed to people the stage with little companies of dream. She gave us dance — and more than dance; no business of trick and limelight, but Infant Joy materialised, the lovelier because of its very waywardness. She was a poem. She was the child — naughty and bold and hungry for the beauty of life — and, through her, the audience would touch finger-tips with all that was generously pure and happy. Many calls she would have at the end of her turn, and the people thought they were applauding her skill as a dancer. But a few of us knew better.

There may have been finer artists. There may have been more finished dancers. There may have been more beautiful children. But certainly never was there another woman or child who so touched her surroundings with herself, so held her audience as to send people away, full — they knew not how — of the intense glee of living. This little girl spoke to them in a language they knew, and thereby achieved the highest purpose of all art; she made others happy and strong. She changed their scowls to smiles; made them glad to meet one another. Strangers were known to speak to strangers under the spell of her dancing. Everything that is young and fresh and lovely and brave was in her message. She did so enjoy it all. That elfish little face, that lyrical body, and those twinkling toes made for the manager of the dirty hall a small fortune. Nightly she flung herself in delicate abandon through her dances, and her laugh thrilled and tickled you as does the best and gayest music. It was not the laughter of frivolity, for frivolity is but the corpse of joy; but that finer laughter expressing the full acceptance of life and all that it gives us of tears and laughter; hoping nothing, fearing nothing, but rejoicing, with sweet cynicism, in everything. It is the most heroic front that man can present to the gods that be, and Gina taught us what no school could teach us; she taught us how to wear this armour and, with its protection, to play the great game.

All Poplar loved her. The manager loved her, the stage hands loved her, the doorkeeper loved her, even her agent loved her — but unless you are of the profession, you will not appreciate the boundless significance of that. And the conductor . . . the young conductor worshipped her. He had been on his knees to her ever since that great first night. It was delicious agony for him to conduct for her. It was an irritation when her turn did not get the masses of applause that belonged to her; it was a still deeper irritation when the houseful of louts roared their appreciation. At nights he wept for her. Her face was a flower which he watered with his tears, and day by day she grew for him more and more lovely and to be desired. He had told her that he was a broken-hearted man, since the only woman he had loved, when he was eighteen, had deceived him. Gina thereafter named him the Scorched Butterfly, and would solace him with kisses.

“Makes me sick,” he used to say to his first fiddle, “when I think that anything so — you know — kind of . . . lovely . . . as that should ever have to die. To think that all that . . . er . . . you know . . . glorious little body . . . should ever . . . er . . . stop living. Don’t seem right. Seems like a blasted outrage to me. Ought to live for ever — anything as lovely as that. Gives me the fair fantods. And yet — of course — she will die, same as all the blasted clods and rotters like you and me. Before long, too, I shouldn’t wonder. Got a kind of feeling that she will, somehow. Every time I look at her I think of it. Makes me damn sick with things. Wonder what it’s all for — all this damn game of living?”

What Gina did to Poplar generally, she did also, in a more exact degree, to her immediate circle. She took Acacia Grove in hand and woke it up. She taught it how to release the flesh from its bondage and revel in the bliss of mere living. There were suppers — or rather Suppers — with the boys from one or other of the halls as guests, and cheap wine instead of beer, and sometimes a sinister little bottle of liqueur; and kisses and caresses were no longer venial sins, but little delicacies that went round the tables at these festivals as naturally as the cruet. And because Gina smiled and extolled it, they approved; and how they hastened to condemn and abolish all that upon which she frowned! She first started on Mumdear, and brought her away from the seventies and eighties into these times.

“Now, Mumdear, pull yourself together, and listen to your little Gina. In some places the younger generation knocks at the door, but in this house it’s going to knock the bally door down and walk right in. You’re out-moded. You’ve got to sit up and take notice of things more, especially of me. Don’t be a back number. Come forward to the front of the bookstall. Burn that bonnet. Sell those clothes. In a word, pull yourself together. If you don’t, I shall kill you, and pin you to a cork, wings extended.”

And when Mumdear protested that really Gina was too young to talk like that, Gina took no notice.

“Fourteen is as fourteen does, Mumdear; and what I don’t know about things a girl ought to know has been torn out of the book. I’ve been through things with a small tooth-comb, and I know what’s there. I know the words and the music. I’ve read the book and seen the pictures. I’ve got perfect control of the ball. Brace up, old darling, and watch your Gina. It’s a wise mother who knows more than her own daughter.”

Thereafter there were no more newspapers for tablecloths; no more scramble suppers; no more slovenliness; no more cheap and nasty food; no more stodgy teas. The art of the Bertello home at that time was represented by oleographs after originals of Marcus Stone and the Hon. John Collier. Gina burnt them, and hung up cheap but serviceable reproductions of Whistler, Manet and Renoir. She taught Mumdear to be truly Bohemian and to entertain the boys from the profession. Mumdear blossomed anew. One final protest she ventured.

“But, Gina, duckie, we can’t afford to be ikey.”

“Ikey?” snapped Gina. “Who’s going to be ikey, my lamb? It isn’t a question of affording or of being ikey. It’s a question of being comfortable. It won’t cost any more to have flowers on the table and to eat something besides beef and mutton — probably less. And as for being ikey — well, when you catch me going up in the air I’ll be much obliged if you’ll stick pins in me so’s I can explode.”

As she ruled Mumdear, so did she rule others. At fourteen she had the mature carriage of womanhood — a very valuable asset in her profession. She could hold her own everywhere in the matter of back-chat, and there were none who attempted liberties a second time. It is doubtful if she had ever, at any age, had a period of innocence, using the word in the sense of ignorance. She had that curious genius for life by which the chosen divine its mysteries immediately where others perforce wait on long years of experience. As she herself expressed it, she knew her way about all the streets and wasn’t going to be driven down the wrong one by any son of a gun. She might not be clever, but she thanked God she was clean.

Thus for twelve months she scattered laughter and love and kindness around Poplar, Shadwell, Limehouse and Black wall, carolling along her amiable way, joy as her counsellor, courage as her guide. Her curl-clad face at this time carried the marks of the fatigue peculiar to those temperamental subjects who spend themselves to the last ounce in whatever they set their hearts to — be it amusement, or love, or work. They live at top pitch because nothing else is possible to them. Gina’s face, drawn though it was, and permanently flushed, danced always with elfin lights, and never were her limbs in repose. Even in sleep she was strangely alive, with the hectic, self-consuming energy of the precocious.

Then, as suddenly as she appeared, she disappeared, and over everything there fell a blank dismay. The light died from tne streets. Laughter was chilled. The joy of living withered as at a curse. Something tender and gay and passionate had been with us; something strange and exquisitely sweet was gone from us; and we grew sharply old and went about our work without any song or jest or caress. Only we thanked God and the grey skies that it had been given to us to recognise it while it was there.

There was some speculation, and at last, because she was so much a part of Poplar and we of her, the truth was made known sorrowfully and reverently.

A hurried night journey in a cab to a lying-in hospital; and this lovely child, fifteen years old, crept back to the bluebell or the daffodil which had lent her to us. All that remains to us is her memory and that brave philosophy of hers which was sobbed out to a few friends from the little white bed in the maternity home.

“Life’s very beautiful. It’s worth having, however it ends. There’s so much in it. Wine and things to eat. Things to wear. Shops to look at. Coming home to supper. Meeting people. Giving parties. Books to read. Music to hear.

“I think we ought to be so happy. And so kind. Because people suffer such a lot, don’t they?

“I’ve not been bad, Mumdear. I’m only in love with everything and everybody. They’re all so . . . oh, sweet — and all that. I’m not bad. I’ve only loved life, and when things tempted me I said Yes. It’s so easy to say No to temptation. Any coward can do that. Kiss me a little, Mum. I’m so tired.

“I hope I haven’t been mean or greedy or cruel. I love the boys and girls I work with, and I love the music I dance to, and . . . Poplar.

“I don’t know whether I’ve kept the Ten Commandments. Don’t much care. But if ever I’ve hurt anyone, if ever I’ve been unkind, I hope they’ll forgive me. Because . . . I . . . love them so. . . .

“Mumdear . . . ask them for some more of that cocaine . . . cos . . . it . . . it hurts . . . so.”

There is a grave in East Ham cemetery which the suns and showers seem to love, so softly they fall about it. The young musical director who had presaged her ending and expressed himself as feeling sick that so fragrant a flower should ever come to die, leaves bunches of violets there once a week. For it was he who brought her to the dust.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51