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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 13
WHEN one is happy and all goes smoothly life seems very uneventful, it is most often the unhappy people whose lives provide thrilling romances for happy ones to read. The next few years slipped imperceptibly away for me, I left the Savoy, but the ties that bound me there had been loosening for some time, and it was no great wrench. I played in other theatres; but I had now “arrived,” and even success becomes monotonous. I had money now, a pleasant home and troops of friends – and of them always the most faithful, the most unwearying in kindness, was Lewis Ransome. Anxiety for the future, either as to ways and means or artistically, was a thing of the past; I was able to rest on my oars and take breath.
But with slackening of effort comes the realization of strain. I had worked hard night and day for nearly twenty years – so hard that now when I look back on those years I often wonder how I got through them. Incessant study, rehearsals, performances; social engagements which often kept me from my bed until the morning sun was shining. Clothes and household affairs to provide and keep going on a salary never quite adequate. At least seven performances every week, Sundays fully occupied, and only a fortnight’s holiday in the year.
That time was over, but it had left its mark. One goes on just too long, and then falls in one’s traces, and that began to happen to me. The monotony of saying and doing and singing the same things night after night and month after month deadened my brain; sometimes I forgot a part I knew backwards, and all the frantic efforts of prompters and fellow-actors could not help me. Then I began to faint, all at once everything went dark, and down I fell on the stage like a dead thing. Sick leaves and short holidays did nothing but bolster me up for another few weeks, and then it began all over again.
Many of the letters I have preserved refer to these recurring illnesses. “I have heard with sincere sorrow of your illness,” writes Charles Voysey, and Gilbert says, “I am very sorry indeed to hear you have been ill. I’ve been confined to the house myself for some weeks past, and had no idea that your illness was so serious. I hope your health will benefit by a little sea-sideism. I shall be very glad indeed to see you back again, the Savoy is not itself without you.” And again Gilbert says, “I am very much distressed to hear that you are so ill, and I hope that your contemplated rest may do you much good.” And still again, “I am very sorry you have been ill. But the piece suffers so much when you are away, that any regrets I may express are open to the suspicion of interestedness.”
Here is another letter referring to one of these periodical breakdowns:
Rest – rest and change – was always what the doctors counselled, how costly a prescription for a woman who has her own way to make and her living to earn! One of these doctors invited me to his own house at Romney Marsh, and there I stayed for several weeks. It was the beginning of a friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Fancourt Barnes that has endured for forty years, and is still an unfailing source of kindness and pleasure to me. During that visit I made the acquaintance of a young man of whom you will be interested to hear.
My host and hostess were very musical, so of course we played and sang together a great deal, and my ability to read at sight especially pleased them and was often most useful. There was a youth of about fifteen years of age staying near them at that time who was also musical, and my friends used to tell him how extraordinary was my facility for reading at sight, tales which he found it difficult to credit. He was himself a budding composer, and one day he brought me a sheaf of his own things, jotted roughly down on manuscript paper. Could I read them? Certainly I could, and did, to his overwhelming surprise and delight. I sang his songs and played his accompaniments while the enraptured young composer listened spell-bound, charmed to hear his ideas interpreted with spirit and understanding. He never tired of hearing me sing or of hearing me talk; and he would sit literally at my feet, listening to stories of stage life, of musicians and composers, or of the celebrated people I had met.
When I returned to London I took some of his songs with me and sang them to Charles Santley. “What did he think of them?” I asked. “Had the young man the right stuff in him?”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” Santley said. “Tell him to go on, tell him to go on.”
That young man was Harry Pelissier, of the famous “Follies,” so it was I who in a measure helped him to fame and fortune.
Now let me jump forward a good many years, when that fame and fortune had been secured. Harry Pelissier, no longer a slim youth, but a man of substance in more ways than one, had bought the house where he was born in the Finchley Road. Directly the purchase was completed he invited me to come with him and see his old home. We arrived. In the front garden was a huge raised bed, thickly planted with tulips, which were then a few inches above ground. The first thing he did – and I thought he had suddenly gone mad – was to rush at that mound and with his by no means fairy feet stamp everyone of those poor tulips into the ground!
“Harry, Harry, what on earth are you doing, have you taken leave of your senses?”
“If you only knew,” he said, his explanation punctuated by stamps, “the smackings I had in my youth for walking over this damned bed of tulips, you’d appreciate my satisfaction – I’m taking my revenge now! There – they’re all smashed down, and I feel better!”
Though I often was ill, I never quite gave up the ghost, as Sydney Grundy affects to have feared in the following amusing note. The “two plump corpses” were a present of game I left at his door, with a message perhaps too laconic to be at once intelligible:
His Christmas card to me, enclosing a portrait, says:
May every heart her art has made less sad
Unite to make the artist’s heart more glad!
The four or five years between 1891 and 1896 were very happy ones for me, in spite of the shadow of illness, and my natural regret at the prospect of leaving the stage. There was Lewis always at my elbow to urge it, there were the doctors to advise it, but still I held on a little longer.
I was now living in a pleasant flat in the old “Fulham Fields” on the borders of Kensington, more spacious and more airy than my old City or Bloomsbury quarters. There I enjoyed spreading myself out and arranging all my household gods, and very beautiful and valuable some of them were. I had endless souvenirs of kind and gifted friends; I had relics of my own past; and from time to time I bought pictures and furniture which were possessions to be proud of. My dining-room was furnished with beautiful old oak, I had pictures by Morland and Constable, the two Wards, David James and Seymour Lucas. The spinning wheel used by Phœbe in “The Yeomen of the Guard” stood in a corner of the drawing-room, and near it Mad Margaret’s scarf tied to her rustic staff. There were sketches given to me by well-known artists, among them two by Mortimer Mempes, my very kind friend. It was a delightful little home, and many happy hours have I spent there, alone with my books and music, or entertaining the pleasant people who constituted my intimate circle. For the first time in my life I had leisure for social enjoyment without encroaching too much on the hours of work or rest. I loved entertaining and I loved visiting, in company so stimulating and amusing as it was then my privilege to enjoy.
I never visited much among my fellow-actors, or formed any close friendships with them. On the stage and during rehearsals I was always immersed in my parts, and took no interest in anything or anybody outside them, that is why I have comparatively few anecdotes to relate about the people with whom I was so intimately associated in my life as an actress. But as a woman I made many friendships, often with men and women whose names most brightly adorn the pages of Victorian history. I met almost everybody of note in London in the houses I visited first as a professional singer, and afterwards as a guest: writers, painters, musicians, politicians, as well as non-professional people known only for their brilliant personal and social qualities.
Sir Morell Mackenzie was one of my intimate friends, for years he attended to my throat whenever that was necessary, and I was a constant visitor at his delightful Sunday evening musicals. Irving and Ellen Terry used often to be there, also Whistler, Mempes, Tosti and other well-known people.
I entertained a great deal myself, and kept open house on Sunday evenings, also on Sunday mornings, when my friends had a habit of dropping in for refreshment and a chat after church. There was always enough to eat and drink and a welcome for everybody, and what jolly Sundays we used to have! Lewis Ransome was a great feature of them in later years. He used to treat my house rather as if it were his own, even before we became definitely engaged, and once he let me in for a terrible business. He brought in a sick man to rest for a while, who became so suddenly and seriously ill that he had to be put to bed and nursed and doctored for several weeks before he was able to be moved.
There was one very pleasant house at which I was often a guest – Frank Leo Schuster’s, in Queen Anne’s Gate. He gave musical At Homes on Sunday evenings, and delightful affairs they were, frequented by some of the most interesting people in London. In the lovely rooms of that house full of artistic treasures I sang and played among many other greater and lesser lights of the stage and the platform. Lady Randolph Churchill was one of Mr. Schuster’s most constant visitors, and she and I often played duets together.
It was a happy time for me, and one of comparative ease, but still my health did not improve, and after one unusually bad fainting-fit my doctor told me with the utmost seriousness that if I had another I might never recover. It was, in fact, paralysis that threatened me – paralysis of the nerves from over-work. So it must be good-bye to the stage or good-bye to life. And there was Lewis waiting as he had waited for twelve long years, dear patient man! I must leave the stage, there was no choice now; and would I marry him? Yes, I would.
He hardly believed me, I think: I had always been so elusive, he feared I would slip through his fingers yet.
Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte were reunited, and I had gone back to the Savoy for a revival of “Mikado,” playing my old part of Pitti Sing. Here is a letter from Gilbert showing how completely our friendship had survived the ups and downs of the last few years, and how, up to the very last days of my stage life, he tried to work the oracle on my behalf, and improve the parts in which I appeared.
When “Mikado” was revived, none of us knew that when its run was over Jessie Bond would leave the stage for ever. I kept the bitter fact secret as far as possible, for it was bitter, though I was going to make a happy marriage. When I told Gilbert he was so angry that I don’t think he ever quite forgave me; he would not accept my health as an excuse, he was unreasonable, as, alas, he often was!
“You are a little fool!” he said.
“I have often heard you say you don’t like old women,” I retorted. “I shall soon be old. Will you provide for me? Will Sir Arthur? Will Carte? No, of course you won’t. Well, I am going to marry a man who will.”
That silenced him, but still he would not forgive. Neither he nor Sir Arthur sent me a wedding present, though Carte did, a very beautiful diamond bangle with this inscription engraved in the narrow gold band:
Looking back on that long connection with the Triumvirate, I see more clearly than ever I did how autocratic they were in their dealings with us, and how they tried to bind us hand and foot. In that they never succeeded with me – I was too determined, too fearless and outspoken. Never being afraid – that was my safeguard. The others were afraid, some of them were perfectly abject, and of course that sort of thing strengthens tyrants in their tyranny. Not that I want to represent us as downtrodden slaves – far from it. They were kindness itself in many ways, but they certainly treated us more as soldiers to be commanded, or even as neophytes under a vow, than as human entities.
Well, one can’t have everything: they were three most brilliant men, under whom it is a privilege to have worked; and if their own brilliance and masterful abilities blinded them a little to other people’s point of view – we are all human.
That last night of “Mikado” – can I ever forget it? Tears were running down my face as we neared the end, I could hardly sing.
“What’s the matter with Jessie Bond?” Lewis Ransome heard some one say, sitting near him in the front of the stalls.
“Oh, she’s upset because they haven’t given her a part in the next opera,” was the reply.
Down came the curtain, and it was all over. Twenty years of hard work, twenty years of fun and frolic and jolly companionship, twenty years of living in an atmosphere of tuneful nonsense, with the glare of the footlights in my eyes and the thunders of applause in my ears. how terribly I should miss it all! And domesticity, that all my life I had fled from, had caught me at last.
19 November, 2008