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CHAPTER XIV

In which taste the flavor of success; get unexpected word from my mother; and face new responsibilities.

HOWEVER, though I never entirely forgot my mother in London, I enjoyed the life on tour with the From Rags to Riches company, with all the excitement of catching trains and finding different lodgings in each town, and I never understood the grumblings of the others when we traveled all night and had to rush to a matinee without resting. I liked it all; I liked the thrill of having to pause in a scene while the audience applauded, as they did pretty often after I became used to the stage. I liked standing with the others after the Saturday matinees, when Mr. Baxter came around giving each one his salary, and I had great fun afterward jingling the two pounds in my pocket and feeling very wealthy and important when I spent sixpence for a copy of Floats.

Best of all I like lying late in bed Sunday mornings, as I could do sometimes, and looking for my name in the provincial journals "Charles Chaplin, as Reginald, showed an artistic appreciation which gives promise of a brilliant future," or "Charles Chaplin, the talented young actor, plays the part of Reginald with feeling."

Then, though no one could see me, I would pretend great indifference, yawning wearily and saying: "Oh, very well for a provincial journal, but wait till we get to London!" But I always saved the clippings.

I became friendly with the comedian, who was a fat good-humored fellow enough, and always got a laugh in the third act by sitting on an egg. I sometimes treated him to oysters after the show on Saturday nights, and he used to grumble about the stage, saying: "It's a rotten life, lad, a rotten life. You'd be well out of it." Then he would shake his head mournfully and stop a great sigh by popping an oyster into his mouth.

"It suits me, old top," I would reply, with a wave of my hand, thinking that when I was his age I would have London at my feet.

I did not care much for the others in the company, as I felt they greatly underrated my importance, and I especially shunned Cora, the woman who played my mother, because she was inclined to make a small boy of me behind the scenes, and would inquire if my socks were darned or if my underwear were warm, no matter who was present.

In the spring the tour of From Rags to Riches came to an end. For the last time I clutched my stage mother while the paper snow was sifted on us from the flies; for the last time I defied the villain and escaped the murderer and wore the velvet suit, very shabby now, but fitting better, when I came back to Lord Plympton's drawing-room.

I felt very depressed and lonely when I came off the stage. The company was breaking up, most of them were gone already, and the "Street in a London Slum" had been loaded into a wagon with "The Thieves' Den" and "The Thames at Midnight." No one was in sight but the grubby scene shifters, who were swearing while they struggled with Lord Plympton's drawing-room, and the dressing-room was deserted by all but the comedian, who was very drunk, and said mournfully: "It's a rotten life, it's a rotten life."

I dressed quickly and went back to my lodgings, wondering with a sinking heart what I should do next. I had seen enough of stage life by that time to realize that it was not easy to get a hearing on the Strand, and for the first time I took small comfort in the thought of my pile of clippings from the provincial journals. My rooms were cold and dark, but no gloomier than my mood when I went in, hunting in my pockets for a match to light the gas.

When the gas flared up I saw a letter propped against the cold pasty set out for my supper. I took it up, surprised, for it was the first letter I had ever received, and then I saw on the envelope the name of the parish hospital where I had left my mother.

I tore it open quickly, but my hands were shaking so it seemed a long time before I could get the sheet of paper out of the envelope. I held it close to the gas and read it. It said that my mother had asked them to write and say she was glad I was doing so well. She was able to leave the hospital now if I could take her away, or should they send her to the almshouse, as she was not strong enough to work?

I could not eat or sleep that night. Some time about dawn the landlady came knocking at my door and spoke bitterly through the panels about my wasting her gas, threatening to charge it extra on the bill. I said I was packing, paid her for the lodging, and told her to go away. Then I went out with my bags, in a very dark and chilly morning, when the early carts were beginning to rattle through the empty streets. I rode up to London on the first train, my mind torn between joy and a sort of panic, confused with a dozen plans, all of which seemed valueless.

My mother was sitting up in bed with Sidney's shawl wrapped about her when I was allowed to see her. Her hair was longer and curled about her face, but there were dark circles under her eyes and she looked very little, almost like a child.

"My, my, what a great lad you've grown!" she said, and then she began to cry. The least excitement made her sob, and her hands trembled all the while I was there.

"Never you mind, mother; I'll take care of you!" I said briskly, and I told her what a great success I had become on the stage. It was the first pose I had ever taken which did not deceive myself, for I wondered, miserably, while I talked, what we should do if I could get no engagement. I promised to take her soon to beautiful lodgings, and the words sounded hollow to me as I said them, but she seemed pleased and was greatly cheered when I left her. Without stopping to look for lodgings for myself, I hurried at once to the Strand, eager to see the agents.

Now in the success or failure of an actor a great deal depends on luck, as I was very willing to admit later when it turned against me, although in the early days I ascribed all my good fortune to my own great merit. On that day when I walked down the Strand I passed dozens of actors who had been struggling for years to find a foothold on the stage, going from one small part to another, with months of starvation between, furbishing up their shabby clothes and walking endless miles up and down the stairs to the agents' offices in vain. The numbers of them appalled me.

Frank Stern's outer office was full of them and they did not leave off watching his door with hungry eyes to look at me when I walked in and gave my card to the office boy.

"Can't see you," he said briefly, without looking at it. "No use the rest of you waiting, either," he said raising his voice. "He won't see nobody else to-day."

They rose and began to straggle out, some of them protesting with the office boy, who only looked at them contemptuously, repeating, "He won't see nobody." I was following them when Frank Stern's door opened and he appeared.

"Oh, hello, my lad!" he said genially. "You're just the chap I want to see. Come in, come in!" He ushered me into his inner office, clapping me on the shoulder.


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