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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 9


AND then one thing and another brought the thought into my mind, so that I had to face it and tell people how I felt about it. There were neighbours, wanting to know when I would be about my work again. That it was that first made me understand that others did not feel as I was feeling.

"They're thinking I'll be going back to work again," I told John's mother. "I canna'!"

She felt as I did. We could not see, either of us, in our grief, how any one could think that I could begin again where I had left off.

"I canna'! I will not try!" I told her, again and again. "How can I tak up again with that old mummery? How can I laugh when my heart is breaking, and make others smile when the tears are in my eyes?"

And she thought as I did, that I could not, and that no one should be asking me. The war had taken much of what I had earned, in one way or another. I was not so rich as I had been, but there was enough. There was no need for me to go back to work, so far as our living was concerned. And so it seemed to be settled between us. Planning we left for the future. It was no time for us to be making plans. It mattered little enough to us what might be in store for us. We could take things as they might come.

So we bided quiet in our home, and talked of John. And from every part of the earth and from people in all walks and conditions of life there began to pour in upon us letters and telegrams of sympathy and sorrow. I think there were four thousand kindly folk who remembered us in our sorrow, and let us know that they could think of us in spite of all the other care and trouble that filled the world in those days. Many celebrated names were signed to those letters and telegrams, and there were many, too, from simple folk whose very names I did not know, who told me that I had given them cheer and courage from the stage, and so they felt that they were friends of mine, and must let me know that they were sorry for the blow that had befallen me.

Then it came out that I meant to leave the stage. They sent word from London, at last, to ask when they might look for me to be back at the Shaftesbury Theatre. And when they found what it was in my mind to do all my friends began to plead with me and argue with me. They said it was my duty to myself to go back.

"You're too young a man to retire, Harry," they said. "What would you do? How could you pass your time if you had no work to do? Men who retire at your age are always sorry. They wither away and die of dry rot."

"There'll be plenty for me to be doing," I told them. "I'll not be idle."

But still they argued. I was not greatly moved. They were thinking of me, and their arguments were addressed to my selfish interests and needs, and just then I was not thinking very much about myself.

And then another sort of argument came to me. People wrote to me, men and women, who, like me, had lost their sons. Their letters brought the tears to my eyes anew. They were tender letters, and beautiful letters, most of them, and letters to make proud and glad, as well as sad, the heart of the man to whom they were written. I will not copy those letters down here, for they were written for my eyes, and for no others. But I can tell you the message that they all bore.

"Don't desert us now, Harry!" It was so that they put it, one after another, in those letters. "Ah, Harry—there is so much woe and grief and pain in the world that you, who can, must do all that is in your power to make them easier to bear! There are few forces enough in the world to-day to make us happy, even for a little space. Come back to us, Harry—make us laugh again!"

It was when those letters came that, for the first time, I saw that I had others to consider beside myself, and that it was not only my own wishes that I might take into account. I talked to my wife, and I told her of those letters, and there were tears in the eyes of us both as we thought about those folks who knew the sorrow that was in our hearts.

"You must think about them, Harry," she said.

And so I did think about them. And then I began to find that there were others still about whom I must think. There were three hundred people in the cast of "Three Cheers," at the Shaftesbury Theatre, in London. And I began to hear now that unless I went back the show would be closed, and all of them would be out of work. At that season of the year, in the theatrical world, it would be hard for them to find other engagements, and they were not, most of them, like me, able to live without the salaries from the show. They wrote to me, many of them, and begged me to come back. And I knew that it was a desperate time for any one to be without employment. I had to think about those poor souls. And I could not bear the thought that I might be the means, however innocent, of bringing hardship and suffering upon others. It might not be my fault, and yet it would lie always upon my conscience.

Yet, even with all such thoughts and prayers to move me, I did not see how I could yield to them and go back. Even after I had come to the point of being willing to go back if I could, I did not think I could go through with it. I was afraid I would break down if I tried to play my part. I talked to Tom Vallance, my brother-in-law.

"It's very well to talk, Tom," I said. "But they'd ring the curtain down on me! I can never do it!"

"You must!" he said. "Harry, you must go back! It's your duty. What would the boy be saying and having you do? Don't you remember, Harry? John's last words to his men were— 'Carry On!' That's what it is they're asking you to do, too, Harry, and it's what John would have wanted. It would be his wish."

And I knew that he was right. Tom had found the one argument that could really move me and make me see my duty as the others did. So I gave in. I wired to the management that I would rejoin the cast of "Three Cheers," and I took the train to London. And as I rode in the train it seemed to me that the roar of the wheels made a refrain, and I could hear them pounding out those two words, in my boy's voice: "Carry On!"

But how hard it was to face the thought of going before an audience again ! And especially in such circumstances. There were to be gaiety and life and light and sparkle all about me. There were to be lassies, in their gay dresses, and the merriest music in London. And my part was to be merry, too, and to make the great audience laugh that I would see beyond the footlights. And I thought of the Merryman in "The Yeomen of the Guard,'' and that I must be a little like him, though my cause for grief was different.

But I had given my word, and though I longed, again and again, as I rode toward London, and as the time drew near for my performance, to back out, there was no way that I could do so. And Tom Vallance did his best to cheer me and hearten me, and relieve my nervousness. I have never been so nervous before. Not since I made my first appearance before an audience have I •been so near to stage fright.

I would not see any one that night, when I reached the theatre. I stayed in my dressing-room, and Tom Vallance stayed with me, and kept every one who tried to speak with me away. There were good folk, and kindly folk, friends of mine in the company, who wanted to shake my hand and tell me how they felt for me, but he knew that it was better for them not to see me yet, and he was my bodyguard.

"It's no use, Tom," I said to him, again and again, after I was dressed and in my make-up. I was cold first, and then hot. And I trembled in every limb. "They'll have to ring the curtain down on me."

"You'll be all right, Harry," he said. "As soon as you're out there ! Remember, they're all your friends!"

But he could not comfort me. I felt sure that it was a foolish thing for me to try to do; that I could not go through with it. And I was sorry, for the thousandth time, that I had let them persuade me to make the effort.

A call boy came at last to warn me that it was nearly time for my first entrance. I went with Tom into the wings, and stood there, waiting. I was pale under my make-up, and I was shaking and trembling like a baby. And even then I wanted to cry off. But I remembered my boy, and those last words of his—"Carry On!" I must not fail him without at least trying to do what he would have wanted me to do!

My entrance was with a lilting little song called "I Love My Jean." And I knew that in a moment my cue would be given, and I would hear the music of that song beginning. I was as cold as if I had been in an icy street, although it was hot. I thought of the two thousand people who were waiting for me beyond the footlights—the house was a big one, and it was packed full that night.

"I can't, Tom—I can't! " I cried.

But he only smiled, and gave me a little push as my cue came and the music began. I could scarcely hear it; it was like music a great distance off, coming very faintly to my ears. And I said a prayer, inside. I asked God to be good to me once more, and to give me strength, and to bear me through this ordeal that I was facing, as He had borne me through before. And then I had to step into the full glare of the great lights.

I felt as if I were in a dream. The people were unreal—stretching away from me in long, sloping rows, their white faces staring at me from the darkness beyond the great lights. And there was a little ripple that ran through them as I went out, as if a great many people, all at the same moment, had caught their breath.

I stood and faced them, and the music sounded in my ears. For just a moment they were still. And then they were shaken by a mighty roar. They cheered and cheered and cheered. They stood up and waved to me. I could hear their voices rising, and cries coming to me, with my own name among them.

"Bravo, Harry!" I heard them call. And then there were more cheers, and a great clapping of hands. And I have been told that everywhere in that great audience men and women were crying, and that the tears were rolling down their cheeks without ever an attempt by any of them to hide them or to check them. It was the most wonderful and the most beautiful demonstration I have ever seen, in all the years that I have been upon the stage. Many and many a time audiences have been good to me. They have clapped me and they have cheered me, but never has an audience treated me as that one did. I had to use every bit of strength and courage that I had to keep from breaking down.

To this day I do not know how I got through with that first song that night. I do not even know whether I really sang it. But I think that, somehow, blindly, without knowing what I was doing, I did get through; I did sing it to the end. Habit, the way that I was used to it, I suppose, helped me to carry on. And when I left the stage the whole company, it seemed to me, was waiting for me. They were crying and laughing, hysterically, and they crowded around me, and kissed me, and hugged me, and wrung my hand.

It seemed that the worst of my ordeal was over. But in the last act I had to face another test.

There was a song for me in that last act that was the great song in London that season. I have sung it all over America since then—"The Laddies Who Fought and Won." It has been successful everywhere—that song has been one of the most popular I have ever sung. But it was a cruel song for me to sing that night!

It was the climax of the last act and of the whole piece. In "Three Cheers" soldiers were brought on each night to be on the stage behind me when I sang that song. They were from the battalion of the Scots Guards in London, and they were real soldiers, in uniform. Different men were used each night, and the money that was paid to the Tommies for their work went into the company fund of the men who appeared, and helped to provide them with comforts and luxuries. And the War Office was glad of the arrangement, too, for it was a great song to stimulate recruiting.

There were two lines in the refrain that I shall never forget. And it was when I came to those two lines that night that I did, indeed, break down. Here they are :

"When we all gather round the old fireside And the fond mother kisses her son------"

Were they not cruel words for me to have to sing, who knew that his mother could never kiss my son again? They brought it all back to me ! My son was gone, he would never come back with the laddies who had fought and won!

For a moment I could not go on. I was choking. The tears were in my eyes, and my throat was choked with sobs. But the music went on, and the chorus took up the song, and between the singers and the orchestra they covered the break my emotion had made. And in a little space I was able to go on with the next verse, and to carry on until my part in the show was done for the night. But I still wondered how it was that they had not had to ring down the curtain upon me, and that Tom Vallance and the others had been right and I the one that was wrong.

A'weel, I learned that night what many and many another Briton had learned, both at home and in France—that you never know what you can do until you have to find it out. Yon was the hardest task ever I had to undertake, but for my boy's sake, and because they had made me understand that it was what he would have wanted me to do, I got through with it.

They rose to me again, and cheered and cheered after I had finished singing "The Laddies Who Fought and Won." And there were those who called to me for a speech, but so much I had to deny them, good though they had been to me, and much as I loved them for the way they had received me. I had no words that night to thank them, and I could not have spoken from that stage had my life depended upon it. I could only get through after my poor fashion, with my part in the show.

But the next night I did pull myself together, and I was able to say a few words to the audience —thanks that were simply and badly put, it maybe, but that came from the bottom of my overflowing heart.


 


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