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Jean Plaidy

Goddess of the Green Room

for William’s and Dorothy’s Great-Granddaughter, Hebe Elsna with admiration for her work, gratitude for her friendship and love for herself

Dorothy Jordan

Comedy in Crow Street

IN A LITTLE room in South Great George Street in the city of Dublin two girls were discussing a matter of great importance to them. The elder, handsome and elegant in spite of the poverty of her clothes, was clearly in a state of tense anxiety; the other with the piquant face and the lively expression, was trying to calm her.

‘You will do it, Hester,’ she was saying. ‘Why, it’s in the blood. You inherited it all from Mamma.’

‘I know,’ said Hester, ‘but you can’t imagine what it’s like, Doll, to face an audience for the first time.’

Dorothy was on her feet. ‘Oh yes, I can,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen enough of it, Heaven knows. I remember when Mamma and Papa were playing their parts and we all had to listen to them. I can smell those tallow candles now. I always used to wonder what would happen if they toppled over and set the boards alight or perhaps caught the curtains.’

‘I wish,’ said Hester, ‘that Papa had not died, and that we had more money.’

‘People always wish for more money,’ put in Dorothy quickly. ‘And don’t forget Papa deserted us before he died.’

‘But he was kind. He always sent our allowance.’

‘I’d rather have done without it, when I remind myself that he had to marry a rich woman to provide it. I’d rather earn my own money.’

‘And that won’t be much in your milliner’s shop.’

‘I dare say not to that famous actress, Miss Hester Bland.’

‘Don’t,’ cried Hester. ‘It’s tempting the fates.’

‘Nonsense,’ retorted her sister. ‘Of course you’re going to be a success. Mr Ryder thinks so. Oh, he has great hopes of you. I heard him telling Mamma so. He thinks you are going to bring business to his Crow Street Theatre. Hester, it’s a wonderful life, playing parts on a stage. And they have benefit nights which can bring in as much as thirty pounds. One day a manager from London may see you. How would you like to play at Drury Lane or Covent Garden?’

‘Stop!’ cried Hester. ‘I can’t bear it. I know I’m going to be a failure.’

‘You are not, Hester Bland. The family fortunes are on the rise. No more skimping and screwing.’

‘What expressions you use, Dolly!’

‘Call me Dorothea, because that is what I am going to call myself when our fortunes are made. When I have a famous sister I shall boast to all the ladies who come into the shop. Try on this confection, Madam. The finest tulle I do assure you and the flowers are made of the best velvet as worn in royal circles. And you are being attended to, Madam, by the sister of the famous actress Miss Hester Bland. You will soon be obliged to travel to London to see her, for Dublin will not be good enough for Miss Hester Bland. Did you know that the King himself has sent for her to play before him in Covent Garden?’

‘Oh, Doll, I’m so… scared.’

‘Everyone is at first. Mamma says you should be if you are going to give a good performance. Do you know, Hester, I don’t think I should be scared. I don’t think I should care.’ She laughed and, rising to her feet, she bowed before an imaginary audience:

‘Dead shepherd; now I find thy saw of might

Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’

‘You’d make a tolerable Phoebe.’

‘If I were to be a famous actress I’d like a singing part. Well…

Under the greenwood tree

Who loves to lie with me

And tune his merry note

Until the sweet bird’s throat…” ’

‘I’m in no mood for songs, Dolly, though I must admit you sing them sweetly enough. But your stockings are falling down and there’s a rent in your gown.’

‘I know. But as long as I am neat for the shop what matters it? Allow me to be as untidy as I please at home.’

‘You’ll be in the theatre tonight?’

‘Of course. With the whole family. I expect even little George will be there. You can count on the family’s support, Hester.’

‘Oh, Dolly, suppose I forget my lines.’

‘Let me hear them. Come on.’ Dorothy was beginning to act the part Hester was to play that night when their mother came in. Grace Bland had clearly been a beauty in her youth, but that beauty was much faded by years of struggle. There was a perpetual frown between her eyes which always moved Dorothy deeply; she wished that she could earn a great deal of money so that they need not be always wondering how to feed the family. But Hester was going to make their fortunes; and it did not matter which member of the family did it as long as it was done.

‘I’m hearing Hester’s lines, Mamma,’ said Dorothy.

‘That’s right, dear. She must be word perfect. I remember my first part. Oh, that was years and years ago. But I recall going through agonies.’

‘As I am now,’ said Hester grimly.

‘Never mind. It’s all part of the life. When you’ve played through to the end and the audience applaud… then you forget all your qualms and you’ll say to yourself: “This is the life for me.” ’

‘Did you say that, Mamma?’ asked Dorothy.

‘I did. And I’ve never regretted it.’

Was it true? wondered Dorothy. Did she ever, during the difficult years, think of her father’s parsonage where life must have been very different from this one for which she had forsaken it. Perhaps there would have been poverty in the parsonage though, for country parsons were often poor. Grace often talked of her girlhood and of life in a small Welsh village and the three girls – Grace and her sisters – deciding that it was no life for them and they were going to seek fame and fortune on the stage. ‘Our father was horrified, as you can imagine,’ Grace told her daughters. ‘He called us “strolling players”, but we didn’t care. He said that if we went on the stage we could fend for ourselves… and we did.’ They were courageous, Dorothy decided – three girls from the country coming to London to try their luck on the stage; and they had not done badly. Aunt Blanche, though, had tired of it and gone back to Wales where she had married and settled down in the village of Trelethyn; but the other two had stayed on. Aunt Mary now and then played in London, and their own Mamma had acted while she was raising a family; and now that they were deserted and there was no money coming in, they were looking to the stage again, and this time it was Hester who was to make their fortunes, for the little she and Dorothy had been bringing in from the milliner’s shop would not keep them, and something would have to be done. So now that Mr Ryder had offered Hester her chance – because she was Mamma’s daughter of course – they must look to her.

Grace said: ‘Dorothy, do go and tidy yourself. What if Mr Ryder should call. Now, Hester, I’ll take you through your part.’

Grace studied her daughter. She has talent, she thought. This will be the beginning of better things, for she is young and there’s no doubt that audiences like their players young… only great performers are allowed to grow old, and these are rare.

She could hear Dorothy, laughing with the boys. They were jumping on the stairs and Dorothy was shouting that she could jump more stairs than any of them. Grace smiled indulgently. Dorothy was a tomboy, not nearly as serious as Hester. It was amazing how lightly she seemed to take all their troubles. It was not as though she did not love them; she was ready to give up every penny she earned for them; it was simply that she could not accept the fact that all was not going well.

     

 

2011 - 2018