The unwonted impetus given to social relations, which was affected by the “opening up” of the Great Daylight Reef, brought together those incongruous particles of adventurous humanity which are to be found floating about the gold-mining centres of Australian population, and in six months the quiet village—up to that time notorious for its extreme simplicity—had become a long street, surrounded by mounds, shafts, and engine-houses, and boasting a Court House, a Mechanics’ Institute, half a dozen places of (variously conducted) religious worship, and some twenty public-houses.
The thirst for knowledge which attends upon worldly success soon made my office a laborious one, for, in addition to my duties as Librarian, I was expected to act as Master of the Ceremonies, Conductor of Conversaziones, Curator of a Museum of Curiosities, and Theatrical Manager. The Committee of Management were desirous that no attraction which might increase the funds of the institution should be passed over, and when Mademoiselle Pauline Christoval (of the Theatres Royal, Honolulu, Manilla, Singapore, and Popocatapetl) offered a handsome rent to be permitted to play for six nights in the great hall, I was instructed to afford every facility to that distinguished actress.
Mademoiselle Pauline was a woman of an uncertain age—that is to say, she might have been two-and-twenty and was not improbably three-and-thirty. Tall, elegant, self-possessed and intelligent, she made her business arrangements with considerable acuteness, and, having duly checked all items of “gas” and “etceteras,” announced that she would play the Green Bushes, as an initiatory performance. “I always act as my own agent,” said she, “and my Company is entirely under my own direction.”
Upon inquiry at the Three Star Brand—where the Company were lodged—I found this statement to be thoroughly correct. Miss Fortescue (the wife of Mr. Effingham Bellingham, the “leading man”) had already confided to Mrs. Butt, the landlady, several items of intelligence concerning the tyranny exercised by the lady manager. Mr. Capricorn, the “juvenile man” (husband of Miss Sally Lunn, the charming danseuse), had hinted vaguely, with much uplifting of his juvenile brows, that Mademoiselle was not to be trifled with, while I found that old Joe Banks, the low comedian (the original “Stunning Joseph” in the popular farce of My Wife’s Aunt), had shaken his venerable head many times in humorous denunciation of “the artfulness of Christoval.”
There was much excitement in the bar-parlour of the “Main Reef Hotel” at the dinner hour. So many reefers took me mysteriously behind the door, and begged me to bring them casually behind the scenes during the performance, that it was evident that, for the first night of the six, at all events, the improvised theatre would be crowded. The only man who manifested no interest was Sporboy—Sporboy, the newly-arrived; Sporboy, the adventurer; Sporboy, the oracle of tap-rooms; Sporboy, the donor of curiosities to our Museum; Sporboy, the shareholder in the Great Daylight; Sporboy, the traveller, the narrator, the hot shisky swiller:—Honest Jack Sporboy, the richest man, the hugest drunkard, and the biggest liar in all Lively Creek.
“I’ve seen enough of them sort o’ gals,” said he. “I’m getting old. My hair’s grey. Pauline Christoval, of the Theatres Royal, Manilla, and Popocatapetl, eh? Bosh! Hot whisky.”
“But, Captain Sporboy, your influence——”
“Oh yes! All right. I’ve been in Manilla. I’ve eaten brain soup and Basi in Hocos, my boy. Human brains. Devilish good, too. Ha, ha! Another lump of sugar.”
“Human brains, you old cannibal!” cried Jack Barnstaple. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I say, dear boy,” returned the old reprobate, wagging his Silenus head. “When I was in Pampalo we made a trip to Pangasinan, and assisted at a native feast. The Palanese had just achieved a victory over the Quinanès, and seventy-five heads were served up in my honour. Gad, gentlemen, the fellows cracked ’em like cocoa-nuts, and whipped out the brains in less time than you would take to disembowel a crayfish!”
“But a theatrical entertainment, my dear Captain Sporboy, merits your patronage.”
“Seen ’em all, sir. Tired of ’em. N’York, Par’s, London. No! Jack Sporboy, sir, is tired of the vanities of life, and prefers the noble simplicity of hot whisky. I had the Theatre on Popocatapetl myself once, and lost 4,000 dol. By a mêtis that I hired to dance the tight-rope. Fine woman, but immoral, gentlemen. She ran away with my big-drum-and-cymbals, and left me to support her helpless husband. Never trust a half-caste; they are all treacherous.”
So we left the virtuous old gentleman to the enjoyment of his memories, and went to the hall. My anticipations were realized. The Green Bushes was a distinct success. Joe Banks, as “Jack Gong,” was voted magnificant, and for the “Miami” the audience could not find words enough in which to express their admiration. Mademoiselle added to the attractions of her flashing black eyes, streaming black hair, supple figure, and delicate brown hands, a decided capacity for the realization of barbaric passion, and her performance was remarkably good. The Lively Creek Gazette, indeed, expressed itself, on the following morning, in these admirable terms:—“Mademoiselle Christoval’s ‘Miami’ was simply magnificent, and displayed a considerable amount of dramatic power. She looked the Indian to the life, and her intense reproduction of the jealous wife rose almost to mediocrity in the third act. Indeed, in the delineation of the fiercer emotions, Mademoiselle Christoval has no equal on the Colonial stage, and we have no hesitation in pronouncing her a very nice actress.” After the drama was over, I took advantage of my position to go “behind the scenes,” and, while Joe Banks was delighting the public with the “roaring farce” of Turn Him Out, to compliment the lady upon her triumph. I found the door of the improvised dressing-room beseiged by the male fashion of the township, who (having made Lame Dick, my janitor, drunk) had obtained introductions to the eminent tragedienne. Foremost amongst these was Harry Beaufort, the son of Beaufort, or Beaufort’s Mount.
“Ah,” said I, “are you here?”
“Yes,” said he, blushing. “I rode over today from Long Gully.”
“Mr. Beaufort and I are old acquaintances,” said the soft tones of the lady, as emerging, cloaked and bonneted, from the rough planking, she melted the crowd with a smile, and turned towards me, “Will you join us at supper?”
I looked at Harry and saw him blush again. It stuck me that he was only two-and-twenty; that his father was worth half-a-million of sheep, and that Mademoiselle Christoval was not a woman to marry for love.
“Thank you,” said I. “I will.”
We had a very pleasant supper, for though I was evidently a skeleton at the banquet, the actress was far too clever a one to let me see her uneasiness. Harry sulked, after the manner of his stupid sex, but the lady talked with a vivacity which made ample amends for his silence. She was a very agreeable woman. Born—so she told me—in the Phillipines, she had travelled through South America and the States, had visited California, and was now “doing Australia,” on her way to Europe. “I want to see Life,” she said, with extraordinary vigour of enjoyment in her black eyes, “and I must travel.”
“Why don’t you take an engagement in Melbourne?” I asked.
“Can’t get one to suit me. I don’t care about sharing after everything a night but the gas. Besides, I only want to pay my way and travel. I should have to stop too long in one place if I took a Melbourne engagement.”
“And don’t you like to stop in one place?” asked Beaufort.
“No,” said she, decidedly. “I am an actress, and actresses, like fine views, grow stale if you see them every day.”
“But did you never think of leaving the stage?” asked the young man.
“Never. I was born in a theatre. My mother was a ballet dancer. My father was an actor. My grandfather was clown in a circus. I have played every part in the English language that could be played by a woman. I could play ‘Hamlet’ to-morrow night if the people would come and see me. Why should I leave the stage?”
“True,” said I, “but you may marry.”
Oh! The vicious look she gave me!—a dagger sheathed in a smile.
“I never intend to marry. It is growing late. I am an actress—the people will talk. Good-night.”
We parted with mutual esteem; and, as she shook hands with us, I saw, lurching up the passage, the whisky-filled form of the Great Sporboy. His eyes, attracted by the light from the room, fell upon us, and—surprised, doubtless, at the brilliant appearance of Mademoiselle Pauline—he started.
Mademoiselle Pauline grew pale—alarmed, perhaps, at the manner of the intoxicated old reprobate—and hastily drew back into her chamber.
“Go away. You’re drunk!” said Harry, in a fierce whisper.
“Of course I am,” said Sporboy, advancing diagonally, “but that’s my business. Who’s that?”
“That is Mademoiselle Pauline,” said I.
“Ho!” cries Sporboy, his red face lighting up as if suddenly illumined by some inward glow. “Ho! Ho! That’s she, is it. He, he! A fine woman. A fair woman. A sweet woman.” It was a peculiarity of this uneducated monster to display a strange faculty for mutilated quotation.
“Ho, ho! I wish ye joy o’e the worm. So a kind good-night to all.”