“Sayings, Wise and Otherwise,” by Frederic S. Cozzens; American Book Exchange, New York; 1880; pp. 214-222.
H OW I came to take a fancy to do it I do not know, but I always did have a fancy for the stage. So at the early age of say ten, or it might have been eleven, more or less, I was the owner of a theatre, and manager of a company, with scenery, properties, flies, flats, wings, traps, and all the equipments, gear and rigging necessary to produce a play in superior style. The proscenium was a very grand affair, rich in red curtains and gilt side-boxes, and the arch over the centre laid off in gorgeous panels of blue and gamboge. The side-scenes and flats were by Mr. Figg, No. 11 Cheapside, London, and the performers were also by the same eminent artist: in sheets, sixpence, plain; one shilling, colored.
Didn’t I make a mistake when I bought the plain sheets and undertook to color them myself? Why, it was not in the capacity of a boy’s paint-box to put such colors on the characters as those done at the London establishment. Take, for instance, Count Frederic Friberg’s hussar tights and jackets? When did ever color-man put a cake of carmine in a boy’s paint-box that would equal the richness of that London crimson? And then the red sack that gracefully fell from the top of his shako. And Karl, 215 his man, had a red jacket, too, laced over with gamboge and worsted. And the head miller, Grindoff, alias the head robber, Wolf, in his red-top Ronaldi tunic (second dress), — what would he have looked like in pale pink, instead of his flaming tunic and sash, and flamingo-feather in his slouch of a slouched hat? I tell you, if you expect to make an impression in your minor theatre, you must have plenty of carmine in your dresses! Why, they do that on the greater stage — yes, and plenty of red fire, too.
The play, of course, was that favorite of everybody’s earlier days, “The Miller and his Men.” You know the opening chorus, —
and ever so many downs, and ever so many derrys.
The theatres was made out of an old wooden candle-box, turned upside down so as to afford play for the stage-manager’s hand to work the actor’s from beneath. The proscenium was nailed to one end of the box, the bottom being removed; the stage was made of slats, nailed crossways; the side-scenes were glued to bits of wood that fitted in grooves on each side, and the curtains, the sky, and the big back-scenes were suspended by strings that 216 ran through pulleys of bent pins, that were hammered with infinite trouble into the frame-work that surrounded this temple of art. The sheets of scenery being pasted upon pasteboard, afforded a delightful and gay task to cut out the figures of trees and rocks, bridges and cottages, in set scenes; but, like many another manager, didn’t I have trouble with my dramatis personæ? I tell you, when I had them all pasted on stiff cards, wasn’t it a task to cut out their little legs without injuring their symmetry. Let any body try — I do not care how skillful an artist he may be — no, not even if he has the genius of Michael Angelo — just let him try to cut out the small spaces between the calves of pasteboard actors, and if it does not make his heart sick before he finishes them, then I am no stage-manager!
But the crowning glory of the whole affair was the mill. It stood in four rows of set waters, on a set rock, and in the description of scenery was called “working.” That meant the mill was a wind-mill, with four wings to move around during the whole performance. Why didn’t the author, Mr. Pocok, make it a water-mill at once? But to turn a wire crank to keep the figures going, and work the millers, with sacks of flour on their backs, across the bridge and into the cavern under the mill, and to work the boat across the stage in four rows of set water, and sing the opening chorus of —
“When the wind blowowowses” —
and to attend to getting old Kelmar on stage properly through the fourth slat from the footlights — it does tax one’s energies to set them in motion and to keep them in motion at one time.217
Of course everybody knows the plot of this famous melodrama, and therefore I will not attempt to repeat it, but it begins in this way: Old Kelmar has a beautiful daughter, Claudine, who is in love with, and is loved by a young peasant, by name Lothair. The head miller, Grindoff, is in love with Claudine also, but he has an undisposed lot on his hands in the person of a former flame named Ravina — and when I say flame I mean it — in a brown slashed skirt trimmed with black, two brass clasps to slashes, and red petticoat showing through. The miller and his men are all robbers. As millers, they steal meal all day from the farmers; and as robbers, they steal all night from the rest of the public, thus doing a heavy business. Under the broad, white hat of the miller, Grindoff wore the black, corkscrew curls of Wolf, the bandit. Under his peaceful, white smock-frock were concealed an iron breast-plate, a pair of pistols, and all the pestilent passions that poison the pericardium of a professional pilferer. The miller’s men are all dressed in smock-frocks — with robber-costumes beneath, of course. Count Frederick Friberg, with his man Karl (comic), have lost their horses and their way in the deepest kind of a Bohemian forest. (Notice, that it is a common practice with actors to lose their horses in such places.) They travel on foot during a thunder-storm to the cottage of old Kelmar, Claudine’s father; get a night’s lodging on two chairs before the fire, and are dogged by the robbers, who determine to kill them — for Count Friberg is a very vigilant magistrate, and intends to root up the robbers and destroy their little trade. Grindoff, however, fails to kill the count, but, 218 inspired by love, carries off Claudine to his den. Lothair disguises himself, and joins the robbers to rescue Claudine. Here he finds Ravina getting ready to administer a little comfort to his lady-love in the shape of a cup of cold pisin. This he dashes from her hand, and persuades her to enjoy a sweeter revenge — namely, to blow up old Grindoff leisurely, and all his men, as well as the mill, and any number of barrels of family-flour, marked extra and extra-superfine. For this purpose a fuse is laid in the crevices of the rocks connected with the magazine, which Ravina is to touch off when all is ready. In the mean time, old numbskull Kelmar, who has been wandering about, calling out “Me cheild! me cheild!” falls in with a company of Friberg’s dragoons, who have also lost their horses, and brings them to the mill in the nick of time. The last scene was a wasted piece of stage effect. The mill being made to blow up, it had another mill behind it, all wire and red tinsel. The fuse communicated with a large fire-cracker which was to cause the explosion, and half a dozen other broken in two for the purpose of keeping up the illusion, by fizzing in small detachments behind the pasteboard rocks around the mill. Ah! it was a moment of unparalleled excitement when, at the last, the robbers swarm around the mill — the Friberg dragoon muskets are pointed at them — Claudine is snatched from the arms of Grindoff by Lothair, who dashes with his lovely prize across the bridge and shouts out, “Now, Ravina, fire the train!“ Fuf — fuf — fuf goes the fuse. Bang! goes the big fire-cracker. Fizz, fizz, fizz, and the demi-crackers are sparkling up into small fountains of fire, when the old mill blows up in seconds, 219 disclosing the jagged edges of its tinsel substitute, and the orchestra plays
“When the wind blow-owes”
on a fine tooth comb. Some difficulty was experienced at first in getting the performers to move easily in the slats, and as many of them came on sideways, they had to skedaddle back again in the same fashion when the dialogue was over. Count Frederick Friberg having his left arm under a blue fly — a short hussar cloak, with the elbow sticking out like a derrick — had to elbow his way on the stage, and when he retired the last thing seen of him was his elbow and the angle of the blue fly. But the play was a great success. It took three mortal hours to perform it, and I was never tired of the performance. It was rather too much for two maiden aunts and one maiden uncle who came one evening to spend a quiet hour. I peeped over the top of the theatre from time to time to see how they were enjoying it, and I beheld the three. They looked like the three Fates.
But I had one audience that never tired. Four little tin lamps served as footlights — they were not bigger than a silver quarter of a dollar in circumference, and about an inch thick. No lights were allowed elsewhere in the room, and they sufficed for all the stage business.
Night after night, a little girl’s face, the lower part in shadow, the upper part in full light of the lamps, was intently watching the performance. Shall I ever forget those large, tender, brown eyes, that thoughtful brow, those clustering curls, and those patient hands clasped in her lap?220
She used to sit in a high chair, so that the light from the stage, thrown upward upon features that were wonderfully harmonious, enhanced every dimple, and brought forth in strong relief the exquisite tenderness of expression with which her face was illuminated. Shall I ever cease to remember Adelaide M——, my only audience?
To be sure sometimes the audience interrupted the stage business thus: —
AUDIENCE. — “Who’s that? — who’s that? — who’s that?“
STAGE-MANAGER. — “This is Ravina.“
AUDIENCE. — “Who is she?“
STAGE-MANAGER. — “She is the wife of the chief robber.“
(STAGE-MANAGER, as Ravina): “Pity me! I am, indeed, an objic of compassion. Seven long years a captive, hopeless still of li-iber-ty. Habit has almost made my heart as these r-rude r-rocks that scr-r-een me from the light of heaven! Miserable lost R-ravina! By dire necessity become an agent of their wickedness, yet born for virtue and for freedom!“
AUDIENCE. — “What is she saying?“
A small white head reappears over the top of the theatre: —
“Adelaide, if you don’t pay more attention to what Ravina is saying, I’ll just let down the curtain, and you sha’n’t see the mill blow up.”
The great success of “The Miller and his Men” led me to dramatize a story then just published, called “Karl Blewen; or, The Tall Mariner of the Maelstrom.” It is 221 astonishing how fond all boys are of stage heroes with the name of Karl. The tall mariner, however, was a very wicked fellow, and the piece ends with the wretch, when at the very height of his villainy, being sucked down into the depths of the maelstrom.
Now, the whirlwind that I made to do Mr. Karl’s final business was as big as a saucer, made of paper in wreaths and frills all around the central tube, down which the malefactor was to be drawn. The waves were concentric, and painted like waves, — green, with white spray, — and the whole revolved around a wire crank under the stage. Of course, as whirlpools suck everything down through the centre by simply revolving, I supposed all that had to be done was to drop Mr. Blewen into the midst of the vortex, whirl him round rapidly, and down he would go. But, unfortunately, on the first and only night of the play, the chief performer, instead of being whirled down in the hole, was whirled out of the whirlpool, and out beyond the footlights. He was picked up and placed in the maelstrom, but he would not “down.” Every time he was whirled, he would whirl out instead of in. So from that time, neither Adelaide nor I believed in maelstroms. Any one who had witnessed the scenic performance would come away satisfied that the centrifugal tendency of a whirlpool is just the opposite of what it is supposed to be.
O! pensive brown eyes, why do ye still seem to shine upon me out of the deeps of shadow, made visible by those stage-lamps? Are those the spiritual eyes of Adelaide, that, after so many, many years, still appear bending over her page as vividly, as gentle, and as patient as they did in 222 years past and gone? I know that I once stood by a little girl’s dying bed, and saw the breast heave with the flickering life. I know that I once followed my only audience to her little grave in the old church-yard. I know that years afterward I took down from the attic the dusty frame of what had been a little theatre. The mice had made away with scenery and performers; even the maelstrom had gone piecemeal, devoured by the ruthless teeth of Time. The weather stains of many, many years are on the gravestone of little Adelaide, but how is it that as I write now, I feel all the tender affection of a pure boy often toward his first, his dear, his child-sweetheart?