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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 10
THE Gondoliers” followed “Ruddigore” and “The Yeomen of the Guard” in December, 1889 – what a succession of masterpieces! It was the apex of the Gilbert and Sullivan achievements, for man is but mortal, and even that brilliant pair found at last that the flow of their inspiration was decreasing. Their best work had been done, and the Gilbert and. Sullivan of “Utopia” and “The Grand Duke” were not the jovial, easy-flowing, rollicking pair of early days. In my opinion they had got on each other’s nerves, and there had been all sorts of ructions, big and little. The final break had to come, it was only a matter of time and occasion.
That was provided by the historic affair of the carpet, which was only a nail to hang the coat on. According to the terms of their contract, Gilbert was responsible for the librettos, Sullivan for the music, and D’Oyly Carte for the theatre and the artists; so that when he considered it necessary to lay down new carpets, and presented the bill to be paid by the three partners jointly, there was trouble. Such a detail was distinctly outside the province of Gilbert and Sullivan, and I consider that Gilbert was perfectly right in objecting. However, Carte controlled the theatre, the solid asset, and the artistic partnership had no bonds but an intangible intercourse of mind with mind, which was now not only slackening, but changing to antagonism. Nerves and tempers had been rasped too often, a breach was overdue, so Sullivan sided with Carte, and Gilbert severed his connection with the Savoy.
All this happened during the run of “The Gondoliers,” perhaps the most successful of all the Gilbert and Sullivan productions. It ran for five hundred and fifty-four consecutive performances, and brought more grist to the managerial mill than any previous opera. Then, with success at its full tide, came the turning point. There was a break of nearly two years, until peace was patched up again, and “Utopia Limited” and “The Grand Duke” were written. But something was missing from those later productions, their creators
never could recapture
And now I must tell you of a night (not a Sunday night either) right in the middle of that triumphant run of “The Gondoliers,” when the house was crowded to the doors – standing room only, house full, hundreds turned away, seats booked up months in advance – when suddenly the whole thing stopped. The theatre was dark and empty, and no blazing arc-lights illuminated the crowded Strand. What could it mean?
It meant that an almost unique honour had been conferred on “The Gondoliers,” its creators, producers and the whole Company. We were “commanded” to play before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and the bills pasted up outside the theatre, to announce the closing for one night, did not fail to draw attention to the glory of the occasion. I believe that Irving had been commanded to play “The Bells” at Sandringham a short time before, but that was serious drama, and we, the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, were the first to play comic opera before Her Majesty in Windsor Castle.
It was a great occasion at Windsor also, for the Queen had lived in strict retirement ever since the death of the Prince Consort, and there had been no such entertainment at the Castle for thirty years. This was the first break in that long period of mourning, and the occasion was made still more memorable by the presence of the Empress Frederic of Germany, the Queen’s recently widowed daughter. We heard that Her Majesty had chosen our show from among all the excellent ones appearing in London, at that time, because she particularly liked the music of “The Gondoliers,” and thought that the bright and sparkling piece would give pleasure to the Empress. Need I tell you how immensely proud we were of the distinction conferred on our theatre and on all of us, and how determined to do better than our best on the great night?
We had a special train, and left Paddington about midday; a company of fully two hundred persons, actors, orchestra, and stage hands, together with the whole equipment for the play. It was a great business getting us started with dresses and scenery and all etceteras complete, but Carte was a great general.
We arrived, and passed through gates and courtyards and past sentries, and ran the gauntlet of all sorts of high officials. It was difficult not to get excited, nervous or depressed in such unusual circumstances, but we had to keep our heads; and to steady us down and accustom us to the improvised stage there was a two hours’ rehearsal of the whole piece, though we had been playing it for months and knew our parts backwards. The stage, erected in the magnificent Waterloo Chamber, was much smaller than the one we were used to, so a rehearsal was very necessary, and the familiar music and action restored our self-possession.
At four o’clock, dead tired and very hungry, we were released for rest and refreshment: boiled eggs and bread and butter that was, I remember, and personally I could have done with something more solid and more dainty. However, it was served in another magnificent “Chamber” – I suppose the ordinary word “room” is not grand enough for a Royal Castle. Afterwards, a very charming and courtly gentleman, with an immense quantity of hair and a beard that must have been nearly as long as Barbarossa’s, took charge of me and showed me the State Apartments and some of the artistic treasures in that splendid home of our Royal Family.
I’m afraid I’ve always been a naughty little puss, and have never learnt to order myself lowly and reverently toward my betters. I am sure my comments were fresh and candid, and I blushed for myself afterwards, when I heard that my dignified escort was Sir Dighton Probyn, Comptroller of the Household to Queen Victoria, and afterwards to King Edward. He was kindness and politeness itself; but I wonder what he thought of me – I was a new species to him, I suppose. Or perhaps he took it for granted that the topsy-turvy and irreverent atmosphere of the Kingdom of Barataria, in which I had lived for more than a year, had fatally undermined my character. At any rate he never blenched, even when I referred to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria as “The Old Lady.”
The Castle clocks struck nine as the curtain rose on our merry contadine binding posies for the gondoliers. No applause – or so little as hardly to count – it was difficult not to feel disconcerted by the courtly reserve of our audience. But soon embarrassment wore off, and the performance went with a splendid swing. After the first act we were told that the Queen was greatly pleased, and after hearing that we did better than ever.
It was a memorable sight from the stage – so far as I in my excitement could take it in – the splendid room so magnificently decorated, with its indefinable atmosphere of the Court. The Queen and her guests were separated from the stage by a bank of flowers and foliage, and in front, in the centre, in august isolation, sat Victoria R.I., in her black dress and widow’s cap. On a table beside her were beautifully bound copies of the score and of the words; and a jewelled opera-glass. She was apparently well acquainted with the music, and often beat time with her fan. The Empress Frederic sat near the Queen, and behind them, in arm-chairs spaciously disposed, the rest of the exalted company.
I have said that there was little applause. What should we do in the theatre without our warm-hearted pit and gallery crowds? The stalls and boxes are never so exuberant in their delight, and this royal and noble audience was even more restrained. I should think Barrington must have been aghast at his own temerity when he sang or rather spoke his song about the troubles of a king, and I know that even I quaked a little as we began our quartet “A Right-down Regular Royal Queen.” But these numbers seemed to amuse the real Queen more than anything else in the opera, and, indeed, who could so well as she see the point of them? The very fact of her choosing this opera from all the others to be played before her shows how vivid was her sense of fun, and how truly British was her willingness to laugh at herself.
There was little applause – I must say it again – and only one encore, which made the glory of that one all the greater. And who do you suppose was singled out for that honour ? Who but I who write this, little Jessie Bond! Yes, I had an encore, and a perfect ovation, for my song in the first act, “When a Merry Maiden Marries.” It surprised me beyond measure, and I think all the rest of the Company too. I never liked that song, it did not seem to go with the right swing, and the Savoy audiences did not greatly care for it either, so I was all the more astonished and delighted when it was re-demanded by an audience led by the First Lady in the Land. And picture to yourself “if you can, if you can,” what a happy evening that encore made for me!
It was over, we danced our last Cachucha and the curtain fell, and we were all triumphantly happy, for even through the stately reserve that hedges Queens we felt the pulsing flow of appreciation and pleasure. As the curtain rose again, showing us all in our places, the Queen herself rose, and bowing to her guests and then to us she retired with her suite. That memorable evening was over.
It was then after midnight. We changed and supped, and caught our special train to London; arriving at Paddington in the cold light of dawn, tired to death, but happy beyond words.
Now behind the scenes, unknown to that noble company, which would have been shocked and scandalized to the last degree, something happened that has never yet been recorded, another prank of Jessie Bond, the incorrigible.
Our dressing-rooms were a series of screened and curtained cubicles in the great Throne Room, and my particular corner was next to a gilded railing, high and strong and fiercely spiked, enclosing a no less sacred object than the Golden Throne of England! Why did they put me next to it, me of all people! Dazzling, unapproachable, awe-inspiring; it stood there empty and solemn; but I poked a pert nose through the railing and began plotting against its majesty.
“I want to sit in it,” I said. “I must get in.”
The others jeered at me, half shocked, half contemptuous. “Jessie! what an idea! Any way, you can’t. Those railings are too high to climb, and even you can’t squeeze through them, sprat as you are.”
“I’ll try,” and I did try, but the space was too narrow, even for me. The spikes couldn’t be climbed over, they were horrible spikes, dangerous spikes, and I didn’t want to be impaled. But still I went nosing round, trying every possible means. Not through, not over – but perhaps under! The lower spikes did not touch the floor; they, too, were horribly sharp, but, what with the space underneath them and the spaces between, the protuberances of one’s body might perhaps be wedged through.
“You’ll never do it,” the girls said, watching my antics.
“What will you bet?”
“Half a crown,” said somebody.
“Done,” said I.
But it wasn’t as simple as all that. I flattened myself out like a cat, and wriggling on the floor I tried to work myself under those spikes, but they caught on my clothes and I was stuck. My clothes must come off, then. I shed one garment after another, making a fresh attempt every time. Off came something else – we wore lots of “undies” in those days. A circle of girls, half horrified, half amused, watched the proceedings. I was getting down to bed-rock, or rather to bare skin – one thing more, and now nothing was left but a skimpy vest to cover my nakedness. Again I spread myself out on the floor, the spikes caught my last remaining garment and tore it to shreds; but what did I care, I was through! I climbed the steps to that golden throne and there I sat almost naked; scratched, bruised, in one tattered rag; while the girls knelt and saluted Queen Jessie of the Savoy, seated on the Golden Throne of England!
I shivered then with cold and excitement. I shiver still – but with horror at my own colossal impudence!
18 November, 2008