In the second week of November, 1803, a play called “A Bold Stroke for a Wife” was running at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Miss Mellor was playing Anne; Bannister, Highwell; Atkin was Simon Pure; and Grimaldi, Aminadab. One night the prompter, otherwise the assistant stage manager, had put his head in at the green-room door and had summoned Mr. Grimaldi, and as the actor was going on the stage a messenger told him that two gentlemen were waiting to see him at the stage door. The stage must never wait, so Grimaldi sent a message to the gentlemen, to the effect that he would come down to them as soon as the business of the scene was over. Accordingly, he went to the stage door and found there two gentlemanly young men.
“Here’s Mr. Grimaldi — who wants him?” said the actor, and one of the young men turned swiftly about and accosted Grimaldi in a very cordial manner. Grimaldi looked at him. He was about, his own age and had the appearance of a man who had lived in some tropical climate. He wore the fashionable evening dress of 1803: a blue coat with gilt buttons, white waistcoat, and tight pantaloons, and a gold-headed dress cane was in his hand.
“Joe, my lad!” exclaimed this person, holding out his hand, with something of emotion in his manner, “how goes it with you now, old fellow?”
Grimaldi was confused. To the best of his belief he had never seen the young man before and, hesitating, he replied that he really had not the pleasure of his acquaintance. “Not the pleasure of my acquaintance!” repeated the stranger, with a loud laugh. “Well, Joe, that seems funny, anyhow!” He appealed to his companion, who agreed, and they both laughed heartily. Grimaldi grew perturbed and uneasy; he suspected that the two men were rather laughing at him than with him, and he was turning away offended, when the first young man said, in a tremulous voice:
“Joe, don’t you know me now?”
Grimaldi looked at him again. The man had opened his shirt, and was pointing to a scar upon his breast. By this scar Grimaldi recognised the young man as his only brother, John, who had gone to sea, had not been heard of for many years, and was supposed to be dead. Grimaldi was very much moved. The two embraced again and again, and gave vent to their feelings in tears. Men embraced each other in Dickens’ earlier books. It is odd; but in the days of the Napoleonic War, when John Bull is supposed to have been most John Bullish, he had ways which we should call “Continental.”
“Come upstairs,” said Grimaldi. “Mr. Wroughton is there — Mr. Wroughton, who was the means of your going to sea — he’ll be delighted to see you.” The two were hurrying off, when the other young man, who had been quite forgotten, said:
“Well, John, then I’ll wish you good-night.”
“Good-night, good-night,” said John Grimaldi, shaking his friend’s hand. “I shall see you in the morning.”
“Yes,” replied the other, “at ten, mind!”
“At ten precisely; I shall not forget,” answered John.
So the friend went away, unintroduced and unknown, so far as the actor was concerned. The brothers went first on the stage and then to the green-room; and the tale was told of this wonderful return, and the sailor was introduced to the actors. Still, the business of the stage continued, and the actor-brother had to leave the sailor-brother, gathering bits of his story between exits and entrances. The sailor said he had made a very successful trip.
“At this moment,” he boasted, slapping his pocket, “I have six hundred pounds here.”
“Why, John,” said his brother, “it’s very dangerous to carry so much money about with you.”
“Dangerous!” replied John, “we sailors know nothing about danger. But, my lad, even if all this were gone, I should not be penniless.”
Grimaldi was convinced by this and the knowing glance that the sailor gave him that he was, in fact, a wealthy man. But before he could get more exact information the prompter’s voice was heard again, and the actor had to hurry away. In the meantime Mr. Wroughton talked to John, making kind enquiries as to his doings and his success. John replied as he had replied to his brother, and brought out a coarse canvas bag, stuffed full of coins. The comedy was over at last, and Grimaldi asked his brother how long he had been in town. He replied only two or three hours; that he had had his dinner and come on at once to the theatre. What did he intend to do? He had not considered the matter; his only object had been to see his brother and mother once more. The two had a long talk. Joe told his brother that he, his wife, and his mother all lived together. But there was plenty of room in the house; why should not the sailor come and live with them, and so they would all be happy together. John was delighted with the notion. But he said that he knew he would not be able to sleep unless he saw his mother that very night; what was her address? The address was given, but the actor suggested that they had better walk home together. He had finished for the night, and would be ready as soon as he had changed his dress. The sailor assented, and Joe went off to his dressing-room.
And then the strangeness of it all came with a sudden onset on Grimaldi. “The agitation of his feelings, the suddenness of his brother’s return, the good fortune which had attended him in his absence, the gentility of his appearance, and his possession of so much money; all together confused him so that he could scarcely use his hands.” He seems to have fallen into the state which the Scots call a “dwam,” a manner of waking vision, in which actualities are taken for dreams and the man wonders when he will awake and recognise that he has been amongst the shadows of the night. “He stood still every now and then, quite lost in wonder, and then suddenly recollecting that his brother was waiting, looked over the room again and again for articles of dress that were lying before him.” In consequence, he took much more time than usual in getting off his make-up and changing his dress; but at last he was ready and ran down to the stage. On his way he met Powell, one of the Company. Powell congratulated him on his brother’s return, and Grimaldi “asked him more from nervousness than for information if he had seen him lately.”
I think the phrase is curious. It must be remembered that Grimaldi wrote his own Memoirs — they were severely sub-edited, it is true — and, likely enough, the phrase in question is the old actor’s own. Taking into account the odd things that came upon him in the dressing-room, I am inclined to think that he had begun to suspect that his brother had never returned, had never been introduced to the actors, had never spoken of his wealth; that the whole thing was an illusion, a phantasm of his mind. That, I believe, was what he meant by “nervousness”; he wished to be reassured by Powell, to be told that there was an actual brother waiting for him below, and that he would see him in a moment. But the events that were to come give this part of the story a very strange interest.
But Powell was reassuring enough.
“I saw him,” he replied, “but a moment ago; he is waiting for you on the stage. I won’t detain you, for he complains that you have been longer away now than you said you would be.”
Grimaldi hurried down to the spot where he had left his brother — it must have been the green-room, surely, not the stage, since there was an after-piece to follow “A Bold Stroke for a Wife”— but he was not there.
“Who are you looking for, Joe?” inquired Bannister, as he saw him looking eagerly about.
“For my brother,” he answered. “I left him here a little while back.”
“Well, and I saw and spoke to him not a minute ago,” said Bannister. “When he left me, he went in that direction (pointing towards the passage that led towards the stage-door). I should think he had left the theatre.”
Grimaldi rushed to the stage-door, and asked the door-keeper whether his brother had gone out. The man said he had gone out not a minute before, he had not had time to get out of the street. Grimaldi ran out, and ran up and down the street; not a sign of his brother. He wondered what had happened. Then it struck him that John might have gone to look up some old friend or neighbour — the Grimaldis had been brought up close to the Lane. There was Mr. Bowley; he and John had been bosom friends when they were boys together. Forthwith Joe knocked at Mr. Bowley’s door.
Mr. Bowley himself opened the door, and was evidently greatly surprised.
“I have, indeed, seen your brother,” said he. “Good God! I was never so amazed in all my life.”
“Is he here now?” was the anxious inquiry.
“No; but he has not been gone a minute; he cannot have gone many yards.”
“That way — towards Duke Street.”
Grimaldi thought on this that his brother must have gone to call on Mr. Bailey, the Grimaldis’ landlord, when they lived in Great Wild Street. Away to Mr. Bailey’s house in that street; again he knocked at the door. No-one answered; he knocked and rang again With increased fury, and at length a girl put her head out of an upper window, and said in a voice both sulky and sleepy:
“I tell you again, he is not at home.”
“What are you talking about? Who is not at home?”
“Why, Mr. Bailey. I told you so before. What do you keep on knocking for at this time of night?”
In great bewilderment, Grimaldi begged the girl to come downstairs, as he wanted to speak to her, telling her his name. She came down after a short interval.
“I’m sure I beg your pardon, sir,” said the maid. “But there was a gentleman here knocking and ringing very violently not a minute before you came. I told him Mr. Bailey was not at home; and when I heard you at the door I thought It was him, and that he would not go away.”
Then Grimaldi asked the girl if she had seen the gentleman’s face. She had not; she had looked out of the upper-window, and all that she noticed was that the gentleman had a white waistcoat, whence she inferred that he might have come to take her master out to a party.
Back went the amazed and frightened actor to the theatre. There nothing had been seen of the lost brother; and then Grimaldi began a sort of mad midnight tour of the houses of old friends round the Lane, knocking and ringing people out of their beds and enquiring after his brother. Some of the people thought Grimaldi was mad; and said so. His manner was wild, and nobody had heard of John Grimaldi for fourteen years. They had long given him up as dead.
One more call at the theatre; nothing had been seen of the missing man. Perhaps, Grimaldi thought, his brother had gone to the house in Pentonville. He had seemed so anxious to see his mother that very night; and between the calls of the prompter the two had been making plans of happiness of a family reunited after the passing of many years. But there was no brother at the house; but his mother sat in the supper-room, looking much paler than usual, so that Grimaldi thought she must have seen him.
“Well, mother,” he said, “has anything strange occurred here tonight?”
“No; nothing that I have heard of.”
“What! no stranger arrived! no long-lost relative recovered!” exclaimed Grimaldi.
“What do you mean?”
“Mean! Why, that John is come home safe and well, and with money enough to make all our fortunes.”
The mother screamed and fainted. John Grimaldi was never seen again, never heard of. A great noble, a frequenter of Drury Lane, used his influence at the Admiralty; some people thought that John had been pressed for the Navy. He was known to have gone under another name, and when no news came, it was suggested that he might well have fallen in one of the great sea fights of those great wars; it was two years before Trafalgar. Then a police officer, who had made enquiries in the neighbourhood of the Lane, had his theory of the boastful sailor with his bag of gold being decoyed into some black den, there to be robbed and murdered. And Grimaldi himself was inclined to suspect his brother’s companion, the smart young man in the white waistcoat, who made the appointment with his brother for ten o’clock the next morning. Why had this man not come round to the theatre, to make enquiries after his vanished friend? But John Grimaldi was seen no more.
It is an extraordinary tale. It may be true in every particular. But there are strange circumstances in the history. For example: why should John knock up his old friend, Mr. Bowley, only to dart away from his door in a minute’s time? Note that minute in advance all through the chase. It persisted up to Mr. Bailey’s house. The servant-girl there said, “there was a gentleman here knocking and ringing very violently not a minute before you came.” I do not quite know why; but this fixed period of a minute inspires me with distrust.
But if the story be an invention, I am sure it was not Joe Grimaldi’s. The famous clown was a worthy, stolid, solid man outside of his clowning. The lie, if it be a lie, must be the work of Mr. Thomas Egerton Wilks, Grimaldi’s friend during his life, editor of his Memoirs after the great clown’s death.
But many of the actors at the theatre had seen John Grimaldi and talked to him on the night of his return? Possibly; but that was in 1808. Bannister died, I think, in the ‘twenties; was anyone of the company alive when the Memoirs were published in 1838?
And yet, in spite of all, I incline to believe in the truth of the tale.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58