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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 12
LOOKING back over my life, it seems to have been spent mostly in public; acting, rehearsing, singing; myself subordinated to my parts, my time belonging to audiences and managers. Yet the busiest of us has another life secret, sacred, uninterrupted; that I had also, and through it ran the course of a friendship growing always more and more tender, a thread of gold weaving itself ever more closely into the pattern of my days.
You have not forgotten my account of meeting Lewis Ransome during the run of “Mikado”? He saw me first as Pitti Sing, he liked me and my big sash and my piquant ways – or so he told me – and we met soon after and talked about America on the roof of the “Healtheries.” Just accident, perhaps – or perhaps not; he had theatrical friends, and could engineer a meeting if he wished, so after the tea-party we were fellow-guests again, this time of somebody who gave a launch party on the river.
So far, there was nothing in it on either side. I was a popular actress at the height of her popularity. I was having my fill of admiration and attention. Mr. Ransome was agreeable and interesting, he was different to most of the men I met, and I liked talking to him; but a man more or less was nothing to me, and as for any serious attachment, I was far from wishing or foreseeing it, love-making and marriage were to me evil dreams of the past.
As for Mr. Ransom, I am sure that in those days he did not think seriously of me either; he liked me, but he liked others too.
That launch party – I remember it so well. The shining reaches of the river, the dark battalions of beech trees marching to the brink and leaning gravely over to listen to our laughter. We startled the waterfowl and sent them scurrying to shelter, we sang and joked and made merry and desecrated the woodland solitudes as youth as done in all the ages. There was one among the guests who might have been a wood-nymph masquerading as a girl of the period – put her in floating draperies, and a wreath of vine-leaves on her ruddy curls, and she would have passed for a lovely young Bacchante. That was Rose Norreys, a charming actress of the day, and no wonder that Lewis Ransome looked upon her and found that she was fair. We drew up at a rustic landing-stage, and wandered off by twos and threes into the wood; and Lewis drew Rose away with him alone into the labyrinth. Was I piqued? – perhaps, I am not above human weakness – but whether or no, I was as usual ready for any devilment, and when they did not come back to the launch with the others I persuaded the captain to go on to the next landing-stage, and let them rejoin us there. A long walk it was and a hot one, on that warm summer day, and I’ll wager Master Lewis got tired of his wood-nymph, and she of him!
He was a gay young fellow of twenty-five in those days; attractive, full of fun, and as ready to run after a pretty girl as the rest of them. Already he was beginning to stand out as a man of promise, and his profession of civil engineering introduced him in good scientific circles. He belonged to a well-known Quaker family, and was cousin to the Ransome of Ransome, Sims, and Jeffries, whose garden mowers were then shaving the lawns of cottage and mansion alike all over England; so he came of substantial, well-to-do stock, a firm foundation for a vigorous youth to build on.
He bore me no malice for that river escapade, in fact he came with a number of the other guests to supper in my flat in Gower Street that night, and on further acquaintance, notwithstanding my flippancy and casual ways, he found he liked me better than Rose Norreys or anybody else, and soon took every opportunity of telling me so. As you know, marriage was far from my thoughts just then; but Lewis was not unduly discouraged, he had the quiet tenacity of the man who means to succeed in the long run, and settled down to a patient siege of nearly twelve years.
“I will never marry,” I told him, “while I remain on the stage, and I am by no means ready to leave it yet.”
“I’ll wait until you are ready,” was the reply, and we left it at that.
We became firm friends quite independently of love-making or thought of marriage, but for our eventual marriage it was certainly the best possible preparation. We spent long quiet Sundays in the country, generally on the river, when he told me his thoughts, wishes, plans and ambitions, and I told him mine. He used to call for me at the flat in Gower Street where I lived when I first knew him. At nine o’clock on Sunday morning there was he in a hansom with a well-stocked hamper on the roof, waiting to whisk me off to Paddington Station, where we caught the train to Richmond or Maidenhead. Then a punt, cushions, the lunch-basket, all our little comforts, and a long placid day on the smooth-flowing river. Oh, the blessed peace of that day, after the feverish six of my working week!
“What a change this sort of thing is for me,” I told him. “My Sundays have always been as busy as any of the other days.”
“I thought you stopped your choir-singing when you went on the stage.”
“No, I sang in Voysey’s church until quite recently, and in the evenings I used to go to Whitechapel and entertain the poor Jews.”
“After your long week’s work!”
“Yes, seven performances every week, and rehearsals. But Nellie Farren and I and a few others thought we’d like to do our bit in the slums, so we used to slip down and give the poor things a treat. They enjoyed it.
“I bet they did,” he said, much interested.
“I didn’t, always,” I went on. “One night I was a bit off colour and dreadfully tired, and the room we sang in was crammed to the doors – it always was that. This night, though, it had been raining and all the windows were closed, and the smell – East End smell – poverty, wet clothes, dirty people – ugh!”
“Well, it was too much for me, I flopped down on the floor in a faint.”
“Poor little Jess!”
“Oh, I got no pity from Nellie Farren. She said ‘Get up, Jessie, you fool, or I’ll come and sit on your chest.’”
“And did she?”
“I don’t know. Even that awful threat failed to rouse me. I couldn’t sing that night.”
“You’ve worked too hard, Jessie, my dear. It’s your turn to rest now. Oh, if you’d only let me take care of you . . .”
He worked hard himself, and was often away travelling to remote and savage places in his capacity as civil engineer. One of these expeditions was to Tamatave in Madagascar, where his mission was to change the course of a river, taming it to some irrigation or water conservation scheme. In this he was completely successful, and the letters F.R.G.S. and M.I.C.E after his name bear witness to his achievements and to public recognition of them. When he returned after any of his exploits he always had plenty to tell me, all the more because I hated long letters either to read or to write. I never wrote a love-letter or a long one in my life, and gave him strict injunctions not to do so either. It was all saved up for our next happy meeting. Then I heard the traveller’s tales: great adventures, hairbreadth escapes, for his duties took him to wild places in strange company, and his experiences lost nothing in the telling. He was a keen sportsman, had hunted big game in Africa and the Rockies, and could tell a moving story of dodging death by the fraction of an inch.
Othello and Desdemona – “She loved him for the dangers he had passed” – at any rate she admired him; but suddenly Desdemona would sit up and begin to tell adventures of her own.
“I’m tired of all your hunting stories, Lewis. I can venture into lions’ dens too – London Society lions. Guess where I was yesterday.”
“How can I, you wonderful, unaccountable little creature? Nothing you could do would surprise me.”
“Oh!” I was half-gratified, half-disappointed to have my sensation discounted. “Well, I went to an At Home at Sir Cyril Flower’s. You know, – that big house near the Marble Arch.”
“I know – very smart company for you. Well?”
“Well, I sang.”
“I’ve no doubt you did, and very sweetly too. Is that all?”
“No, it’s not all. Who do you think accompanied me? No less a person than Paolo Tosti! You know enough to realize what an honour that was for me!”
He was duly impressed. “Not that you don’t deserve to be accompanied by Apollo himself.”
I brushed away compliments. “But that isn’t all, who do you think was there ?”
“All fashionable London, I suppose.”
“Nearly. But Queen Alexandra was there, what do you think of that, my dear!”
Ah, I’d got him now! He sat up, and looked at me with those queer, softly penetrating eyes of his. “Was she, indeed, – sweet woman! And did she – of course she liked your singing.”
“She liked it so well that she asked to have me presented to her, and told me so herself.”
So I kept my end up, and had a professional or social triumph to cap everyone of his Wild West stories.
Poor dear Lewis! Not that he minded, he admired me, and enjoyed my triumphs as though they had been his own, in spite of a very natural jealousy of my stage life and all connected with it. He wanted to monopolize me, and hated to feel that I belonged to the public and could be gazed at any night by anyone who chose to pay for a seat in the theatre. Even as a friend and would-be lover he was not alone, I was free to accept attentions and hospitalities from other men, and often did so. But he sat back and waited and never complained, though I knew what he thought.
“Let me show you a note I’ve just received,” I said to him one day. It was Christmas time, and we had both been giving and receiving presents from all our friends.
“More of the big-wigs deigning to smile on little Jessie?” he inquired loftily.
“Read it, and don’t try to be funny.” This was the note.
The card referred to was one of my Christmas cards, which I always had specially designed for myself, usually showing me in one of my characters. I have also a note from Sir George Alexander thanking me for my pretty card, and saying, “Believe me, we appreciate it very much, and have a sincere regard for you personally and an immense admiration for your talents.”
One of the people who most faithfully sent me a card every year and received one in return was H.H. the Duke of Teck. This kind old gentleman was a very good friend to me, and always distinguished me by his notice when he saw me at any social function.
The most noteworthy of these occasions was at the opening of the Grafton Galleries in Bond Street, when Barrington and I had played in a little musical piece, and I had taken the part of a housemaid. I was in the dressing-room after the performance, when a message was brought to me that the Duke wished to take me down to supper.
“I can’t go,” I said, aghast. “I have no other dress here, I can’t go like this!”
But when my difficulty was made known to the Duke he overruled my objections, and sent word for me to come as I was. It was no ordinary function, nobilities and notabilities were there in gorgeous array, and dukes – except royal ones – were three a penny. Into this glittering assemblage I descended, my heart thumping under my muslin apron. But the Duke tucked me under his arm quite as a matter of course, and led me through the lines of bowing and curtsying grandees, a little maidservant in a print dress, on the arm of a most courtly and distinguished old gentleman, one of the handsomest members of the Royal Family.
It was a lovely story to tell Lewis, and I can assure you that it made him sit up and open his eyes! “I liked it,” I said, “and I pretended I was a maidservant. It made them laugh.”
I have another story to tell you about the Duke of Teck. The dear old man was always giving me presents and remembering me in some way or another, and once when he had just returned from a visit to Germany he came behind the scenes at the Savoy, and mysteriously told me he had brought back something for me.
“What is it ?” I was on the tiptoe of expectation at once.
“Something very nice – something you can’t get here.” He led me on and on, rousing great hopes of a gift truly royal in splendour.
“Give it to me,” I urged him, “be quick!”
So at last he rummaged in his pocket, and with immense fuss and ceremony fished out – a slice of crumbly cake! I was so disappointed that I dropped the messy stuff on the floor, quite regardless of manners or etiquette or diplomacy, or even the royal feelings!
19 November, 2008