APART from my business associations, it was my privilege to see something of all the great Triumvirate, as they have been called, in their private life, though a great deal less of Sullivan than of the other two. I have had the pleasure of being a guest in the houses of all, and could not wish for better hosts, albeit so dissimilar in tastes and pursuits.
With Gilbert there was always a certain feeling which I can only describe as a sensation of living in a kind of mental firework factory. But, mind you, Brock's best all the time; none of your common squibs and crackers, and he seemed to keep the fuse alight all the time without the slightest effort.
Though invariably anxious for each guest to amuse himself or herself as they might desire, he was always ready to join in any game that was going, and occasionally inclined to be the least bit dictatorial on the points connected with it, as, for instance, George Grossmith and I found on one summer day when we were staying with him near Uxbridge, and proposed a sett of lawn tennis.
We discovered to our amazement that the court was considerably longer than the regulation ones we were used to. It appeared that Gilbert was a very hard hitter, and found it difficult to keep the ball within the court as laid down by the laws, and being a law to himself he extended the court. This sounds as humorous as one of Pooh Bah's speeches Mikado, but is true.
His marvellous readiness undoubtedly did much add to the effect of his witty sayings, and in all the years I have known him I do not recollect seeing him at a loss.
I trust that if he by any chance reads these lines he will not be annoyed at the past tense I am obliged to use, for it is true enough that at our last meeting no one was more present than he, and as quick as ever with the retort courteous.
On one occasion, when rehearsing Pinafore, he said, "Cross left on that speech, I think, Barrington, and sit on the skylight over the saloon pensively." I did so, but the stage carpenter had only sewn the thing together with packthread, and when I sat on it it collapsed entirely, whereupon he said like lightning "That's expensively!"
Here is a story about Gilbert that I got at second hand, but which I have no reason to discredit on that account. When in New York he one night attended a soirée where he met a lady who professed a great interest in music, and after the usual compliments on Gilbert and Sullivan, she proceeded to discuss other composers, and remarked, "I do so admire Mr. Bach's music" — (she pronounced it Bayche). "Can you tell me if he is now composing?" "No, madam," said Gilbert, "he is decomposing."
I wish some one would prevail upon him to give his impressions of America and Americans. They would form very interesting reading, I feel sure.
Sullivan was somewhat of a bon viveur whenever he could escape the grip of his chronic malady, but was also most emphatically a gourmet, and invariably had an excellent chef in his employ. Gilbert, calling there one morning, was chaffing him about this, and Sullivan defended it by insisting that even the most simple dishes sounded more attractive in French. "For instance," said he, " look at my menu there for breakfast, and you will see what I mean." Gilbert picked it up and said, "Quite so. I see. Bloaters!"
That Sullivan was also a humorist is amply evidenced in his compositions, and naturally most strongly in his manipulation of the low comedian of the orchestra, the bassoon.
There was a Pinafore selection played at Covent Garden Promenade Concerts, and Sullivan was conducting a rehearsal. On arriving at the " What, never? Well, hardly ever!" of the Captain's song there was a silence. The bassoon player remarked, "There is a cadenza marked in my part, Mr. Sullivan, but it's not written." Sullivan explained the situation to him, and said, "Just ask yourself questions on the instrument, and answer them." The player did so, and every one present was convulsed with the quaint effect.
Apropos this instrument, there was invariably enormous competition for seats at the Savoy premieres, and it was difficult to find room for all friends. On one occasion a great personal friend of Sullivan's, Mr. Reuben Sassoon, had applied too late, and backed his application with a piteous appeal to Sullivan for help. He at once said to Carte, "If he'll change the first letter of his name, I'll give him a seat in the orchestra."
The parties which Sullivan gave in his flat in Victoria Street were always eagerly looked forward to by any of us lucky enough to be invited. In addition to the honour of meeting Royalty, one had the great pleasure of hearing the crème de la crème of every branch of talent then before the public, for each and all were pleased with an opportunity to do ever so slight a service to the man whose geniality won all hearts. I have heard in his drawing-room Albani singing with Sullivan as accompanist, and the Duke of Edinburgh playing a violin obbligato, to be followed by the latest and most chic of speciality artists, and then some trio or song from the piece then running at the Savoy. Santley, Edward Lloyd, Norman Salmond, Hollman, Antoinette Sterling, Arthur Roberts, Albani, Trebelli, Jessie Bond, to mention only a few of the names of people I have seen there on one evening, will give some idea of the excellence and variety of the entertainment.
When our music was handed out at rehearsal it consisted only of what is known as a "voice part," and we were expected to read it at least fairly well at sight. I was always very brave at this business, and no fence was too stiff for me to tackle, in spite of an occasional severe fall. When this happened, Sullivan would smile his sweetest and say : "Very good tune indeed, B. ; now we'll have mine." As a matter of fact, he would deliberately lay little traps for me, and I remember one, of a sudden change of time, which, for a wonder, failed to catch me, to my intense delight, greatly added to by Sullivan's whimsical expression of astonishment and disappointment. He was most kind in altering songs for us if we desired, which did not often happen; but one of my treasures is part of a song so altered for me and signed by him.
One of the most delightful weeks of my life was spent as his guest at Roquebrune, where he used to take a villa for the winter. I had written a two-act opera which I was very anxious to submit for his consideration, with a view to production at the Savoy in the event of his not again collaborating with Gilbert, which at this time was just possible, and he kindly suggested that I should take a week's holiday with him and bring the play. After hearing it he expressed his satisfaction, and was most complimentary about my lyrics, and his last words were a provisional promise to set my book; but, as every one knows, matters were adjusted between the partners, and my piece went into the retirement shared by a good few others I have written.
I shall never forget that, my first and last visit to the South of France and Monte Carlo. I travelled from London to Paris with Walter Austin, the well-known professor of music, and robbed him shamefully at piquet, I remember; but from there I went on alone, at which I was very pleased, as I was feeling like a boy out for a holiday, and wanted to give the feeling full play.
After a modest dinner I left Paris by the night train, but sleep was the last thing I thought of. Wherever we stopped I got out to have a look round, and had several narrow squeaks of being left behind, most particularly at some station just about as day was breaking, when I was attracted by the sight of a long table on the platform bearing cups of steaming hot coffee and rolls. I was only about half through my refreshment when the official made the usual announcement about getting in again. I collected my best French and said, " Attendez, s'il vous plait ; je n'ai pas fini mon café." The French gentleman rolled off a long and evidently indignant sentence. I said, " Plait-il? " He replied very angrily, " Le train va partir," to which I answered in my best declamatory style, and with arm extended in a commanding manner, " Le train ne peut partir sans moi! " Fortunately for me, it seemed to take away his breath for a minute or so, and I finished my breakfast. He then stalked off muttering something that sounded like " Un sacre milord anglais"; finally he blew a kind of penny trumpet, I jumped in, and we were off; and I quite felt that I had asserted my nationality.
We used to go in to the Casino after lunch, and come out again to Roquebrune about six o'clock, so that we did not deprive ourselves of too much fresh air; but I am quite sure that if I ever stay in Monte itself, I shall find the attraction of the tables too strong for me. Sullivan always played the same coup; I do not know precisely what it was, but it was intimately connected with No. 11, round and on which he spread his louis. He had a bad day on the Wednesday, and on the following day declared his intention of not going in. However, I did not like leaving him alone, and also had a strong presentiment that his number would turn up, so he allowed himself to be persuaded, and to my great relief won a very considerable sum. There was another notable recollection connected with this visit. Sir Frederick Johnstone had asked Sullivan to dinner at his villa one night, and hearing that he had a visitor insisted on my being brought along, and to my great pleasure I sat next to Lord Randolph Churchill, whom I had never met before. He proved to be in great form, and I played the part of listener with great delight.
My last day at the tables was a variegated one. I had been doing moderately well. I may say I had only been playing five-franc pieces all the week, and when our usual time for train-catching arrived I was a winner. Sullivan, at the same table, had been having a bad run, which had just turned in his favour, so he proposed staying for six more coups and driving home. I thought six coups in gold could not hurt, but we eventually stayed an hour, and I wished we had gone home at our usual time; but my regret was tempered with the pleasure of another good win for my genial host, and my last evening was quite a success.
I crossed from Calais on Christmas Eve, and was absolutely the only passenger in the train to London. There were very few on the boat, and a thick fog nearly prevented our getting into Dover at all; but after leaving the ship it was plain sailing, and I got home to my Christmas dinner, and the table decora tion was a branch of oranges picked by me in the open two days before.
Sullivan suggested one morning that I might like to lunch in Italy, and as this sounded rather novel and humorous I agreed. Accordingly we entrained for Ventimiglia, but the lunch was not a great success, and I sincerely trust there are Italian towns considerably less malodorous than this.
Very many happy days have I to ascribe to the geniality and hospitality of D'Oyly Carte, who was never happier than when surrounded by friends. He had a great fondness for all kinds of games, though unfortunately not possessed of the qualifications necessary to shine at any athletic pursuit, probably owing to want of opportunities when a boy. He had a great command of language, but it was almost invariably used on himself, with the most ludicrous effect. He had a quaint habit, for instance, when playing any kind of game and failing at a shot or stroke, of calling himself the most opprobrious names. I persuaded him to take up golf, and though he would never have made a player, he was most keen about it, and that was a game which afforded him limitless opportunities for indulging his odd characteristic. I was often quite unable to play on for laughing.
He was quite the most kind-hearted friend one could desire, and yet at the same time one of the hardest managers to deal with. When he started at the Opera Comique he had a Board of Directors, but before we went to the Savoy he had relieved himself of this incubus, and from what I have in later years learnt of boards and their ways, this one fact proves him a discerning man.
He was a considerate and tolerant employer, and his numberless kind actions to less fortunate people than himself should have secured him a fine record in the "Domesday Book." He shared the well-known weakness of other great men for sending telegrams, and when going anywhere by train, he was no sooner settled in his seat than he would ask for or produce a number of forms which he would fill up with no possibility of sending for ever so long a time.
He once asked me to go with him to Henley to give my opinion on a houseboat he thought of buying. Of course I was delighted to go, and asked him to include Grossmith in the party, with a view to some fun.
We started our day's amusement in the train by addressing Carte as "Pa," much to the delight of the other passengers, increased by D'Oyly's impatience under the imputation, culminating in his saying, "Shut up, you fools ! "
Our first joke matured at Shiplake, then a tiny little station, where we left the train and strolled on while Carte interviewed the stationmaster, and gave instructions concerning certain telegrams he expected to have found there and wished sent on to Henley. The way to the waterside lay through the meadows, and we had to pass through a gate which we carefully shut, and then waited for Carte. As he came up we yelled playfully, "Gate's locked, Pa, you've got to get over," and to our delight he believed us and clambered on to the top bar, by which time we had, of course, opened the gate and were gently swinging it to and fro. The remarks he made to us and the intentions he expressed were so forcible, that we had to bargain for immunity before letting him get down. For a short time we then displayed an exaggerated deference, which worried him a good deal; but the climax of our fun was to come at lunch time. Carte having ordered it, went to the station to inquire for telegrams, and as George and I both felt that he ought not to be disappointed of a message, we went quietly to the post office and sent one off to Shiplake station, to be sent on. It arrived during lunch, and it was worth all our trouble to hear D'Oyly's pleased "At last!" The messenger claimed eighteenpence for porterage, which rather annoyed him, but he paid it, opened it, and read, "Come at once baby much worse." For a moment he was completely puzzled, then he turned to us, and we both went quietly but quickly out.
Carte was quite one of the best judges of a good cigar I ever knew, and yet, oddly enough, had an extraordinary predilection for smoking those of an inferior quality. He kept the very best for his friends, and always told you which was his own box, so that you knew which to avoid.
I persuaded him that there was a great opening for a really first-class hotel on one of the Thames islands somewhere near town, and he said if I would find the island he would think of it. I found it in due course; he bought it, and began clearing it for building. We had some splendid times camping out on it in huts, but it was camping in comfort with professional cooking, and therefore really enjoyable.
When the hotel was finished the licence was opposed so vigorously by the local innkeepers that he at once relinquished the idea and converted it into a private house; but for some time his guests were much puzzled over certain apparently eccentric arrangements, and he was several times asked why he had as many as twelve washhand basins on the ground floor. By degrees all signs of its original intention disappeared, and it became a most delightful place to stay in.
He once took the entire Savoy company for a trip on the river in two launches, and we lunched in the lovely Clieveden woods. Coming home by moonlight we sang all the choruses and concerted music from the different operas, and the effect was perfectly delightful, drawing quite large houses at different locks we passed through.
He was the first man to use electric light in a theatre, and came before the curtain on the first occasion to give a short lecture on its advantages.
He used periodically to come to me with a kind of veiled threat which he would endeavour, unsuccessfully, to deliver without a twinkle in his eye. It was this: " B., you must look out; there is a man in the provinces who plays your parts wonderfully, and sings well."
His great kindness of heart caused him to keep in his service some very quaint persons in subordinate positions. One man was so hopelessly deaf, that whatever he might be told to do he simply went and poked the fire and resumed his seat; while another was inclined to be impertinent, and used to get his notice to leave "there and then" at least once a week, but he always turned up the next morning, and Carte either forgot or forgave — the latter most frequently, I believe.
This man appeared one day in great distress, and on being questioned announced that "his touring company was not doing well." When Carte had recovered from his astonishment, he asked what the company was. "The Wobbling Wonders," was the reply. "There's six of 'em, and they was wobbling at Chatham last night to 4s. 6d.! "But it seemed there was an additional cause of trouble in the fact that "his first wife had turned up." "How turned up?" said Carte. "I mean she's found me, and it's so unpleasant for my second." He did not seem to think it bad for himself, so noble-natured is man, but he had omitted to inform the second that he was already married. I never heard the sequel, but he was not long depressed.
One of the best excuses for dilatoriness I ever heard was made by a little old man who used to hang about the Savoy stage door on the look-out for odd jobs. I sent him one day to the post office just across the road for some stamps, and he was nearly an hour gone, and his change was short on his return. When I asked him the reason of his delay, he said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I had to wait while they made 'em."
Carte was most sympathetic and kind about my venture with management, an attitude which appealed to me very strongly in view of the fact that it was, so to speak, a kind of desertion from the banner under which I had made my first London success, and I am truly glad to say that we remained the firmest of friends until the day of his death, though we naturally saw little of each other in later years.
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