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Chapter 19

THE first sport to take hold of my boy affections was, I believe, “walking the tight rope,” to which I was urged by a strong desire to emulate the feat of the great Blondin, then creating a great sensation. I saw him frequently at the Crystal Palace, and nothing would satisfy me until I had rigged up a rope in our home playground, and on which I became fairly expert, so much so that I one day ventured to dance on it, with the result that I broke the rope and incidentally my head.

When walking the high rope over the fountains Blondin used to wheel a barrow full of fireworks, all of which went off at a certain spot, leaving only a row of lights along his balancing pole. One night his attendant was clumsy in taking the barrow from him (it had to be done before he could land), and to the dismay of the crowd the pole with its light was seen to fall to the ground, a distance of some hundred feet. There was a kind of gasp of horror from the thousands assembled, every one believing Blondin to have fallen; then a strong light being thrown on to the landing stage, he was observed to be hanging head down, having caught the rope by one foot. The cheer that rose was enough to have made him let go, but amid a breathless silence he was observed to draw himself up to safety, when it broke out again.

After retiring from the rope-walking profession I devoted my attention to running, at which I was only a moderate success, though I still preserve a cup I won for hurdling, the race in those days being run over three hundred yards with eighteen flights. Cricket I hardly played at all until later years, we having no playground at Merchant Taylors’, but when at the Savoy I took over the captaincy of the Thespians, and great fun we had. It became too expensive to keep up, however, as my team always turned up short, and I had to wire to the Oval for one or two professionals to make up. Henry Bracy, one of our tenors in Princess Ida, was playing for me one day at Ewell, and while we were fielding asked me if he might go into the Pavilion. On my asking him why, he told me that he wanted a “sweater,” as I had put him at long-leg, where there was a terrible draught between two trees. As he possessed a very delicate voice of course I had to consent, and he did not hurry back.

Charles Glenney was playing in the same match and fielding at short-leg, when a ball came to him fairly fast, and he jumped aside. I shouted out to him, “Why didn’t you stop it, Glenney?” To which he replied, “Stop it, my boy? – why, it was a whizzer!” We had no club colours in particular, and one of the members asked me to go with him and choose a blazer. Of course I went, and was rather startled when he insisted on buying, in spite of my remonstrances, an M.C.C. ribbon for his hat, an I.Z. sash, and a Guard’s blazer, all of which he wore at the same time, but which failed to make of him more than a moderate cricketer. We had a most enjoyable two days’ match one year at Torry Hill near Sittingbourne, between the house-party and my team of Thespians, all of us being entertained by Lord Fitzgerald. We began at noon on the Sunday, to the horror of some of the residents, as we heard afterwards. Half the countryside turned out to see the match, which, of course, aggravated the offence, as it kept many of them out of the public-houses, to the detriment of the usual Sunday trade. Golf was then in its infancy and Sunday golf unheard of, but although it has become a recognized evil, there still seems an extraordinary objection to Sunday cricket, rather reminding one of the old Euclid problems which ended with “which is absurd.” There was a great effort made to establish Sunday cricket during the palmy days of the Lyric Club, which had a delightful country house at St. Ann’s, Barnes, but it was not welcomed very heartily even there, though the cavillers would all take a hand at lawn tennis, and never missed the after-dinner concert or theatrical entertainments.

My last appearance at cricked was at the Oval, about 1904, when I played for the London v. Provincial Actors. I went in last but one and managed to keep my end up till time was called. I also hit a ball clean out of the ground, much to my delight, as I had announced my intention of trying to do so before going in, and we were playing well over towards the side, of course. The humorous reporter on the Daily Mail, in describing the incident, said that having done it I proceeded to call “Fore!” I believe I did, but it was from annoyance at not being given six for the hit. The only cricket I play now is with a soft ball at the annual fête for the Actors’ Benevolent Fund at the Botanical Gardens, where we generally get badly beaten by a team of young and pretty actresses. Of course we claim that chivalry has something to say to this result, but there is no denying the skill of the Misses Statham, Billie Burke, Adrienne Augarde, Vane Featherstone, Marie Studholme, and others too numerous to mention.

Golf has become vastly more popular among actors and actresses than it was when I first started playing, some fifteen to twenty years ago, and we now number in our ranks some very fine players, notably Fred Leslie (a son of my old friend) and Herbert Ross, either of whom can hold his own in almost first-class company. I had my first lesson on the Eastbourne links one day, quite unexpectedly. The M.C.C. were playing a match in Devonshire Park, and after lunch I was starting out to watch it when Jack Russell and Smith Turberville came into the hotel, told me it was all over and that they were going golfing; would I come? With some misgivings I went, but I hit the first ball I tried and there and then fell a victim to the fascination of the game. I need hardly say I have never regretted my introduction to the finest doctor for most of the ills that flesh is heir to. Soon after this my cousin, Faithful Begg, who was then captain of Felixstowe, took me down for a week-end. We only just caught the train as it was moving off, with all my luggage still in charge of a porter on the platform. I shouted to him to throw in the clubs and never mind the rest, an order which pleased Begg immensely, as indicative of the true golfing spirit.

I have been the means of inducing many of my colleagues to take to golf, among others D’Oyly Carte and George Edwardes, the latter being for a time very keen on the game. I met him after the lapse of some weeks and he told me with great pride that he could beat Paul Rubens. I duly congratulated him, knowing nothing of Rubens’s game, but the next time I met the latter, asked him about the match. He explained his defeat by the fact that on reaching each green in turn, he would ask Edwardes how many he had played, with the invariable reply, “I don’t know, but I’ve got two for the hole.”

In the autumn of 1907 I had a very pleasant day out at Gosforth Park, Newcastle, with Forbes Robertson and Roland Cunningham. There was a competition being played between local and visiting accountants, and we three followed the last couple to leave the tee. On arriving at the first green we found a photographer in waiting with his camera and I heard him ask Cunningham if we were accountants When answered in the negative he was moving haughtily away when I felt obliged to tell him that we considered ourselves quite as interesting people but in another way, which I followed up by saying who we were. I gathered from his expression that he had not heard of Roland or myself, but he produced that day’s edition of the journal he was attached to, containing an interview of Forbes Robertson, and asked if this were the man. Being satisfied on the point by Roland he followed us all round the links taking pictures. When the luncheon interval was concluded and all the gallant accountants were grouped for a picture there were no films left.

I several times tried to persuade Henry Irving to take up golf, but he seemed to think it would interfere too much with his habit of taking a siesta before acting, which he said was a necessity. He was quite surprised when I told him that I invariably slept for half an hour between golf and acting. George Alexander I have frequently golfed with, and he is no mean opponent when at his best. Tree has, I believe, only been seen on the links once, being an interested spectator of a match between Herbert Ross and another member of his company at Hoylake; and after walking round some few holes, with a very thoughtful expression, Tree, who had watched Ross very closely, asked him, “Why do you hit it so hard?” I once had the pleasure of playing a round at Hoylake with the celebrated Johnny Ball, one of the most cheering opponents a man can have, full of encouragement for the new player and never winning by too great a margin.

The actors have played several matches against the county cricketers, and most enjoyable days have resulted. My opponent has twice been the G.O.M. of cricket, Dr. W. G. Grace, a most cheery man to play with, and who keeps up a running fire of comments on the game that can be heard half a mile away. It was most amusing once when Bosanquet and I followed the Doctor and George Edwardes at Northwood, and the discussions as to the number of strokes each had played at each hole not only lasted all the way round, but also all through lunch and most of the afternoon.

I had a narrow escape of winning a prize once at New Zealand; I had a handicap of six and went down for a day’s practice the Sunday before the competition. I had no match, and Mure Fergusson kindly took me round, giving me a third, at which odds I just managed to win. I came down on the great day full of hope, to find to my dismay that my handicap was down to four, the result of playing the handicapper on a Sunday.

Shooting is a form of sport I never did very much of, but have some pleasant recollections of odd days in Hampshire and one day in particular in Kent, where I was one of the guests of Sir John Aird at Sutton Valence. It was a very hot “first,” in fact, one of the guns went home very early in the day with a touch of sunstroke. We were walking up the birds and, at about 11.30, felt as if we had had nearly enough, when, on turning the corner of a hedgerow, we met our cheery host, followed by a servant who carried a magnum of bubbly wine. I fancy there are few men who, without being given to drink, do not keep a lively recollection of some occasion when it has been more than welcome; this was mine, and it was iced to perfection.

On the Sunday evening which concluded the visit our host unearthed from the library an old history of Kent, with the object of finding something concerning the ruins of a monastery we had all been much interested in visiting during our afternoon walk, and having found the reference he sought, proceeded to read it aloud to an attentive audience, when he suddenly came to the following: “Recent excavations point to the existence of an underground passage from the monastery to the convent which –” He stopped here abruptly, and there was a stony silence until he said “Well, I think that will do for this evening.” Every one tried hard to look unconscious, but Sir John’s quaint look of confusion was too much for us, and there was a general burst of laughter. This is the only occasion I remember of a lecture on mediæval customs proving humorous.

Coarse fishing was a very favourite pastime of mine, and. having heard whispers of large fish of some sort in the lake near the house, I went forth one day and captured what I thought was a carp of about six pounds. I took it to be set up and called the next day to arrange about it. The taxidermist told me he had put it in his goldfish tank overnight to keep it fresh, and it had come to life and eaten all his goldfish. There was no doubt about its being alive, though how it had survived the journey from Maidstone on the speedy Chatham and Dover railway was a mystery to me. Tench must be hardy fellows.

There is a somnolent excitement about punt-fishing on the Thames which I used to find very attractive, and in those days it was possible to get some good sport. Spending a holiday one summer at Medmenham, I was fishing from the bank one day with my wife, when a skiff full of people went by rather near us; after passing I heard the man pulling stroke inform the lady steering who I was, whereupon she remarked, “Never! Why I thought he was a much younger man.” This amused my wife immensely, in fact until late in the afternoon, when a steam launch crowded with “trippers” passed by, and one man said to his friend, “Bill, twig the girl on the bank fishing?” Bill replied, after a steady look, “Girl? Where d’you find your old women?” I made no remark, but the balance was restored.

Lawn tennis of course claimed me as a victim at one time, and I developed a quite useful “garden-party” form, owing in a great measure to the opportunities I had of playing with the Renshaws, Lawford, and other stars of the arena at Forbes Winslow’s place at Hammersmith, and also on the lawns of Harry Chinnery’s lovely retreat near Teddington Weir. I once had the audacity to enter for the championship at Wimbledon, and actually survived the first round. I fancy I was encouraged to do this by the form I displayed in a foursome at Datchet, when I had George Grossmith as my partner against Henry Kemble and Corney Grain. The match was left unfinished owing to Grain striking himself violently on the nose with his racquet and retiring using language about the game. It was during this visit of his to Grain that Kemble was run to earth by the income-tax collector, a person whom actors are, I believe, fairly successful in eluding (and with reason I think), and he said “Well, I will pay you this time, but you must tell Her Majesty that she must not look on me as a permanent source of income!”

My last game of lawn tennis, after an abstention of at least ten years, owing to the superior attraction of golf, was played in August, 1906, at Wimbledon with Gordon Cleather and two others. It was the day of the production of Amāsis, and I wanted distraction for the mind. I found four setts quite enough, one of them taking fourteen games to decide, but it put me in great form for the evening.

Racing has always had a great fascination for me, and for years I never missed the two Epsom meetings. I saw the great race for the Gold Cup between Bend Or and Robert the Devil, practically a match, as there were no other runners. I was on the hill and had my modest investment on the winner, Bend Or, but when I went to collect my money I stood lost in wonder. Where were the rows of bookmakers who had been driving a roaring trade on both horses at evens? I never saw such a clearance in my life; there were dozens of little trumpery stands lying about and no sign of the pencillers, with the exception of some half-dozen well-known and solid men, with whom it is always safe to bet, but with whom on that occasion I of course had not invested.

Newmarket I have only attended once, but it was a memorable visit for several reasons. My first sensation on arriving on the course was that here at last was a meeting at which we could be contented to “look on” without having a bet, but that impression wore off after a couple of races.

The most important reason for remembering the visit was this: that on the way to racing, after a late breakfast, I proceeded to issue to my host and his friends a list of what I termed “Barrington’s finals.” Needless to say, they all lost, but it gave me an idea which materialized on the way back to town in the train. I wrote what I fondly hoped was a humorous description of my day’s doings, signed it with the nom-de-plume of “Lady Gay” (it was written from a feminine point of view), and sent it off to my old friend Burnand, the editor of Punch, with a note asking, “Any good to you?” To my great surprise and delight I received, by return post, proofs for correction. This developed into a weekly contribution which ran for nearly a year, so that almost feel I was once on the staff of Punch. I am not aware of the full extent of the consequent increase in the circulation, but I bought a copy myself every week while it lasted.

I had an interesting racing experience in connection with the late Duke of Beaufort and a celebrated mare he owned called Rêve d’Or. She was entered at Sandown for a five-furlong sprint, a considerably shorter distance than that she was accustomed to, and, if I remember right, the famous horseman Tom Cannon rode her. I met the Duke in the paddock, and he stopped to exchange a few words with me. We naturally spoke of the mare, and he told me she was in the best of health, but he feared the distance was not far enough for her. Having made my small bet I thought I would see the race from a spot about two-thirds of the way home, so strolled across to the rails. Rêve d’Or, as usual, began slowly and Cannon soon commenced to bustle her along. I was watching intently through my glasses, and just before they came past me I fancied that I could see the mare suddenly realize that she had not so far to go as usual and must hurry up. She immediately began to put in her best work, and if this story were fiction would of course have won, but being fact she was just beaten a head. That same night I again met the Duke and told him what I thought I had seen, and he confirmed my impression by telling me exactly where I must have stood, as he himself had, unknown to both of us, been close by and had read the story of the race in the same way, having noticed Rêve d’Or’s expression.

Of course all of us at Daly’s took a great interest in “The Chief’s” horses, especially Santoi, who decorated his sideboard with some very handsome cups.

Racing is his great relaxation, and I think he is never so happy as when “one of his” has “rolled home,” and all his friends have been put on the good thing. Naturally these “good things” do not always materialize, and I remember a terrible afternoon at Windsor when we drove over, a family wagonette full, from Winkfield. He had four horses running, and the wagonette had a dash on each of the first three and nothing on the fourth, who had been “off his feed for some days” and was the only one that won. In addition to this bad luck, I had a very narrow escape of having my face (such as it is) spoilt for life. I was discussing with a friend in the paddock the merits of the horses as they were being led round, when he suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me back about a yard, shouting, “Look out!” The horse just passing us had lashed out, and his hoof knocked the cigar out of my mouth and just touched me on the chest. Since then I have been careful to walk on the “led” side of a horse, and I think I never before so keenly appreciated the value of a yard.

I have one racing and cricket combined reminiscence which was also connected with a horse belonging to the late Duke of Beaufort, called Eastern Emperor. I had, “on information received,” backed it to win something over a hundred for the Royal Hunt Cup, at fairly long odds, for which, on the day of the race, I could see very excellent hedging, but, I had also backed a bill for a friend of mine who had exercised the usual prerogative of friendship in leaving me to meet his liability, and the amount for which I had backed the horse would just cover it if it won, so I naturally determined on the bold policy of “all or none.”

I had at that time never been to Ascot and had no great desire to go, in addition to which the Thespians had an important match at Buckhurst Hill, which to me was a far greater attraction. In the excitement of the match I forgot all about the race, and as we were leaving the ground some one appeared with an evening paper. Even then I felt uninterested until I heard a bystander ask, “What won the Hunt Cup?” I then listened breathlessly for the answer, which was “Eastern Emperor,” when, to the astonishment of my team, I threw into the air a brand-new bowler hat I was wearing and proceeded to kick it out of shape. Then I had an uneasy feeling as to whether I should be paid; I was, however, and so was the bill, but my friend has never paid me.

This is an argument against the supposed wisdom of hedging which I can support by another case, that of Hackness’s Cambridgeshire, over which I stood to win about sixty to nothing, but I had “laid” the mare with a friend, and in my ignorance, having omitted to give the bookmaker’s name for the money, found myself in the unenviable position of having to pay without receiving, the said bookmaker being one of several who were severely knocked over the race in question.

I do not quite know if dancing comes under the head of “sport,” but it is certainly exercise, especially stage dancing, of which I have done a fair amount. There is a dance in Pinafore, in which the First Lord, the Captain, and Josephine take part, which is very effective when done with energy.

One night I observed sitting in a box a lady whom I was anxious to impress with my charm as a dancer; I was going very strong – indeed, as she told me afterwards, she was in the act of pointing out to her companion my obvious grace – when I tried an extra twirl, my feet went up in the air, and down I came on the deck – a blow to my vanity, to say nothing of the deck.

In the present revival (1908) my dance is, I am told, as graceful as of yore, but I am taking no risks.

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