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Tuning Up
by [?]

They were “tuning up” in a wooden hall, stupidly built on the pier to shut off the sea and the night (a penny to pay for the privation), and in that strange cacophony of desolate violin strings, tuneless trombones, and doleful double basses, in that homeless wail of forlorn brass and lost catgut, I found a music sweeter than a Beethoven symphony; for memory’s tricksy finger touched of a sudden the source of tears, and flashed before the inner eye a rainbow-lit panorama of the early joys of the theatre–the joys that are no more. Was it even at a theatre–was it even more than an interlude in a diorama?–that divine singing of “The Last Rose of Summer” by a lady in evening dress, whose bust is, perhaps for me alone in all the world, still youthful? Was it from this hall of the siren, or was it from some later enchantment, that I, an infant Ulysses, struggled home by night along a sea road, athwart a gale that well-nigh blew me out to sea? How fierce that salt wind blew, a-yearn to drive me to the shore’s edge and whirl me over! How fresh and tameless it beats against me yet, blowing the cobwebs from my brain as that real breeze outside the pier could never do! When my monitory friends gabble of change of air I inhale that wind and am strong. For the child is of the elements, elemental, and the man of the complexities, complex. And so that good salt wind blows across my childhood still, though it cannot sweep away the mist that hovers thereover.

For who shall say whether ‘t was I or my sister who was borne shrieking with fear from the theatre when the black man, “Othello,” appeared on the boards! The first clear memory of things dramatic is of an amateur performance–alas! I have seen few others. ‘T was a farce–when was an amateur performance other? There was much play of snuff-boxes passed punctiliously ‘twixt irascible old gentlemen with coloured handkerchiefs. Also there was dinner beforehand–my first experience of chicken and champagne. And then there is a great break till the real theatre rises stately and splendid, like Britannia ruling the waves–nay, Britannia herself, or, as they call it lovingly down Shoreditch way, “the Brit.”

When to my fashionable friends I have held forth on the glories and the humours of “the Brit.,” they have taken it for granted, and I have lacked the courage or the energy to undeceive them, that my visits to this temple of the people were expeditions of Haroun Al Raschid in the back streets of Bagdad or adventures of Prince Florizel in Rupert Street; but of a truth I have climbed the gallery stairs in sober boyish earnestness, elbowed of the gods, and elbowing, and if I did not yield to the seductions of “ginger-beer and Banbury” that filled up clamantly the entr’actes, ‘t was that I had not the coppers. “Guy Fawkes” was my first piece, in the days when the drama’s “fireworks” were not epigrams, and so the smell of the sulphur still purifies the air. All the long series of “London successes,” with their array of genius and furniture, have faded like insubstantial pageants, but the rude vault piled with flour-barrels for the desperado’s torch is fixed as by chemic process. Consider the preparation of the brain for that memory. What! I should actually go to a play–that far-off wonder! “The Miller and his Men” cut in cardboard should no longer stave off my longing for the living passion of the theatre. ‘T was a very elongated young man who took me, a young cigar-maker fond of reciting, spouting Shakespeare from a sixpenny edition, playing Hamlet mentally as he rolled the tobacco-leaf. There was a halo about his head, for he was on speaking terms with the low comedian of the “Brit.,” and, I understood, was permitted upon occasion to pay for a pint of half-and-half. Alas! all this did not avail to save him from an early tomb. Poor worshipper of the green room, perchance thy ghost still walks there. Or is there room in some other world for thy baffled aspirations?