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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 17
WE had had twenty-five years of married happiness when Mr. Ransome’s health began to fail. He was eight years my junior, and I had always taken it for granted that he would outlive me; I could not believe that I was to lose the kindest, most loving husband that ever a woman had. Our happy, care-free life was over: for him came pain, weakness, the domination of doctors and nurses; and for me an ever-deepening shadow of grief.
We tried everything; finally I took him to Mentone; but he got worse and worse, and at last I had to bring him back to England, a dying man. An awful experience that journey was. He was too weak to go on to Newark, so I took him to a nursing home in London, and there he died on the 22nd of May, 1922. It was only two days after our silver wedding-day, his room was full of flowers and presents, and they were still arriving when the gifts and bouquets of congratulation had to give place to funeral wreaths.
For me it was a cruel blow. Never had anyone a happier married life than I, and I am proud to know that I made him happy also. His long devotion was rewarded. He loved his home with me in it, and the talents and brightness that I then devoted to him and our guests, instead of making them common property. He had always been jealous of the public, poor dear Lewis!
I went back to Farndon, and stayed there for two years with my sister to bear me company, but the emptiness of life without my husband there was terrible. I could not have borne it much longer, but it was brought to an end independently of me – to a sudden and shattering end. The business in which the Ransomes were interested came to grief, and everything had to go; I sold my house and furniture and left Newark. After a period of wandering and indecision I came to Worthing, where I have settled down and made a little home for myself, and hope to end my days in peace.
Peace – is that what we all wish for at last, even I, with my record of such strenuous, vivid, varied life? But, old as I am, stagnation wearies me, I enjoy the quiet comfort of my home, but only for a breathing-space, between frequent visits to London, where I really live again. There I stay at my club and see my friends, and enjoy a taste of the old gay life once more. They gather round me then, old friends who remember Jessie Bond in her prime, and young ones who are not too modern and self-sufficient to do homage to a woman who has fought hard and won her place in theatrical history. I am “somebody” in London yet, and the greatest pleasure that life still holds is to enjoy for the brief time that my strength permits the old atmosphere of interest and adulation, to be fêted and entertained for what I was and have done, if not for what I am.
But there’s life in the old dog yet, as you would realize if you saw the playbill of an entertainment given at the Lyceum Club, Piccadilly, on May 7th, 1929, whereon I appear as producer of one of the plays. And just a year ago, again at the Lyceum, a select number of guests assembled for a “Young Musicians’ Dinner, Arranged by the Music Board in Honour of Miss Jessie Bond.”
That was a compliment that pleased and touched me to the heart, from young things who never knew me except by repute, and yet were moved by artistic fellow-feeling to do me a public and signal honour.
To my young entertainers, and all others treading the toilsome path of artistic effort, I wish success and happiness. I have myself experienced such intense joy of life, such exhilaration and inspiration from its very difficulties, that I can heartily encourage them, and envy them that their strivings and successes are before them, instead of behind them, like mine.
Who is it that says “It is more blessed to travel than to arrive?” That is most true, it is the effort, the fight, the reaching out to grasp a perfection that ever beckons and ever eludes, which is real felicity and never turns to ashes in the mouth. I wonder sometimes if the young ones realize this – perhaps we never do when we are young – but there seems to be now a slackening of effort among young artists, a disposition to be too easily satisfied, to run in grooves and neglect the wider training, and to depend too much on looks and legs as factors of success. No doubt I shall be told I am old-fashioned, but I can only say what I feel.
The artistic life, the life of the stage, of music and drama, is its own great reward, it is a glorious profession, there is no doubt of that. Certainly it is also an exacting one, but it brings in its train the highest of pleasures, the most varied experiences, and the most satisfying results. But it must be taken seriously, one must work. It is not enough to display beautiful dresses and shapely limbs, and to gain adulation from men. All that side of it passes swiftly – too swiftly – but the joy of the artist remains. To study hard and unceasingly, letting no smallest detail escape, to train body and mind unflinchingly towards the ideal, and then to forget dress, appearance, everything; and be absolutely the part one is playing – that is happiness indeed. Reward comes once and in generous measure, the intoxicating music of applause, the feeling that hundreds of eyes are watching every gesture, hundreds of ears drinking in every word, and that one is not only tickling the jaded palates of connoisseurs in legs and costumes, but touching the humblest and simplest heart at the back of the gallery. That is a great experience, it goes to the head like champagne – the experience of swaying a great crowd of people and making them feel.
It was my greatest joy to see the people weeping when as Iolanthe I sang my song to the Lord Chancellor, and to know that, while I so often made them laugh, I could make them cry too, and appeal to the deepest sentiments of the human heart as well as cheer it by gay nonsense. Is that not a worthy ambition – to cheer, to amuse, to please? I remember that when I lived in Palace Mansions and was still on the stage, I received a visit from Lady Plumer, wife of General Sir William Plumer, as he was then, who occupied a flat in the same mansions. She was very kind and very complimentary, but she thought it was such a pity that with my great talents I could not employ them in a higher walk of life. I said, “Lady Plumer, God has given me these gifts and I use them to the best of my ability. I give many people pleasure – and I have to live.”
Yes, I should love to have my life all over again, sorrows and all, for they were bound up with the joys and all made me richer in experience. It was joy to work in the creative atmosphere I worked in, to see new conceptions shaping themselves and take my own share in giving them life, throwing all my heart and soul into the task.
Mine was perhaps a unique experience, for I played in London for twenty years without a break; no tours, no “rests,” no slackening except for one brief holiday of a fortnight every year. In that I know I may be envied by any whose “rests” are more frequent than they care for; nevertheless, I think the hard work, self-denial, and abstention that characterized my life as a young actress, would frighten many of them now.
Do not let it frighten you, it brings its own great reward, and helps to ennoble the glorious profession to which we belong, in which the achievement of the individual enriches the whole. Conversely, the deficiencies of its members, either on the stage or in private life, lower its status in the public eye, and it saddens me to know how far it has descended to be a mere marriage market – or market of a kind that I will not name – and prelude to the divorce or criminal court. Young artists, make a stand against that taint, raise your profession and let it raise you. It brings you in contact with the highest as well as the lowest in human nature; learn from both and don’t let the lower triumph.
Young artists, my successors – my much-envied successors – this is my final word, this and my thanks to the warm-hearted, generous public whose applause was the food of my spirit for so many years. The play is over, the curtain must ring down. I have lived my life, I leave it with regret. May you all be happy as I have been, and feel to the end
That Death, whene’er he call,
19 November, 2008