Imágenes de página
[ocr errors]

young James, and introduced him to Lamb and Coleridge. To the latter the boy would read his compositions, and the famous writer would criticise and suggest. At fourteen our hero had written a ballad called “ The Welsh Harper,” which was set to music and became very popular.

When he was sixteen Mrs. Knowles died, and his father married again. Such a change was certain to bring unhappiness to a quick-tempered, impulsive lad, who had adored his mother; and one fine morning James quitted his father's roof, never to return to it. Whither he went, or how he lived during the next three or four years, nobody seems to know. In 1805 he turns up as an ensign in the Wiltshire Militia. How he came there, again nobody seems to know; but we hear of him as a pleasant, jolly, good-natured fellow, who if he saw a man looking ill or weary on the march, would relieve him of his gun, and throw it upon his own broad shoulders. He had been known to relieve two such, and to walk with a gun on each shoulder, as he would probably have done with half-a-dozen, if Nature had not been so sparing to him of arms and shoulders. He was also—another characteristic-notorious as being always late at drill. By-and-by he exchanges into the “ 2nd Tower Hamlets,” in which, for some reason unknown, he is saluted among his comrades as “Jeremiah-hem !Apropos of which there is a good anecdote. Years afterwards, when Knowles had become famous, and was travelling through the provinces performing in his own pieces, he was playing Master Walter, in The Hunchback, in some country theatre, when, in the midst of one of his most impressive scenes, a voice from the boxes suddenly thundered out the well-remembered “Jeremiah-hem !” It was an old comrade who had recognised him, and could not resist giving the old salute. In extenuation of such a piece of barbarous bad taste, it must be stated that the man was intoxicated.

In 1806 our young adventurer exchanged arms for physic, and became the pupil of one Dr. Willan. A twelvemonth afterwards his master obtained for him a diploma from the Aberdeen University—there was no crucial examination in those daysand soon afterwards procured him the appointment of vaccinator to the Jennerian Society, in Salisbury Square. It was about this time that he was first infected with the religious mania, which broke out again in his old age. He was a constant attendant at Rowland Hill's Tabernacle, and became so enthusiastic over preaching that his friends could scarcely restrain him from holding forth in Fleet Street. Some sermons on “the social evil” set him to work on the Quixotic project of attempting the rescue of fallen women; and he actually succeeded in restoring six poor girls to their friends, and to a respectable position in life. But in strange contrast to such serious ideas, he was always writing and reciting poetry; and in spite of his admiration for that arch-enemy of the stage, Rowland Hill, he was the leading tragedian of an amateur club, for which he wrote two tragedies. Of the three influences-physicking, preaching, and spouting—the last proved the strongest; and although the good old doctor promised to make over his practice to him, he, in his usual heedless and impulsive fashion, resolved to renounce Æsculapius for Shakespeare, and take to the regular stage. His father, with whom he had long since become reconciled, was furious. Why, scribbling poetry was nothing to this! Become an actor! Never would he look upon his face again! Not so the old doctor, whose parting words were, that he would soon grow tired of his folly, and when he did he could come back, and everything would be the same as though he had never left.

So, with a few letters of recommendation in his pocket, young Knowles started upon his new adventure, and made his first appearance at Bath; he performed there a few nights only, and then crossed over to Dublin, where he made his débứt as Hamlet, and failed. It must have been a bitter disappointment to the eager, sanguine young fellow; and many a time, doubtless, he wished himself back in the vaccinating-room in Salisbury Square; but he was not the man to play the part of the Prodigal Son; so, as he could not be a star in the theatrical firmament, he had e'en to content himself with being a wandering satellite, in other words, he engaged himself to the manager of a strolling company at Wexford, and embraced the hardest of all lives—at least, in those days—that of a strolling player. About the same time there joined the company two young girls named Charteris, and with the eldest, who was only eighteen and very pretty, our young player fell in love. Before the end of three months they were engaged to be married. But just before the happy day, Knowles quarrelled with the manager and called him out. The manager did not come, but he dismissed the young fire-eater from the theatre, and the lady was so shocked at the unchristianlike temper of her lover, that she refused to be married; so he lost his engagement by his pluck, and it seemed he would lose his wife as well. Her

[ocr errors]

benefit took place a night or two afterwards, and in the time when the course of their true love was running smoothly towards the church, it had been arranged that he should sing “The Exile of Erin" on the occasion. The night came, and after the curtain fell upon the first piece, a voice was suddenly heard in the gallery announcing its intention to sing “The Exile of Erin;" and from that coign of vantage our discharged player, being banished from behind the footlights, sang the ballad, and was cheered to the echo by the audience. Need it be added that the lady relented, and became Mrs. Knowles after all. If she had not, she would not have been worth any man's having

The manager, however, not being in love, did not relent; and the young couple made an engagement with Cherry, an English and Irish manager, and the author of the once famous comedy of The Soldier's Daughter. It was here that Knowles first met another ardent spirit, somewhat akin to his own, Edmund Kean. They became great friends, and were mutually struck by each other's talents. Kean played the leading part in a tragedy Knowles had written, entitled, Leo the Gipsy, and preserved such profound faith in it that he would have chosen it for his débût at Drury Lane had not, fortunately for him, portion of the MS. been lost. What remains of it is poor stuff. About the same time he published a volume of poems, among which was one entitled, “ Vaccination : a Dramatic Poem.”

“ ' What a subject for the muse! We next find Knowles and his wife at Belfast. Here he adapted and partly rewrote an old piece upon the subject of Brian Boroihme; it drew good houses for some nights; but five pounds were all the realisation of all the fine promises of good payment made by the management.

By this time he seems to have become heartily sick of the trials and disappointments of a stroller's life. His genial manners and educated intelligence won him friends wherever he went; and a clergyman, whose acquaintance he had made at Belfast, procured him an appointment as teacher of elocution, grammar, and English composition, at a school in the town. Throwing himself heart and soul into his new pursuit, he thoroughly succeeded, and soon afterwards opened a school of his own, composed a treatise upon grammar, and compiled a book, well known thirty years ago, entitled Elocutionist.” So much were his abilities esteemed, that in 1810 he was offered the head-mastership of the Belfast Academical Institution.

- The

During these years the angry father had not continued to be inexorable, as he had vowed he would; probably his son's success at Belfast had a softening influence upon him. Be that as it may, the two were now good friends again, and generous Sheridan conceived the splendid idea of transferring to his father the appointment that had been offered to him. His representations prevailed, and James Knowles was duly installed as chief, while his son contented himself with a subordinate position. But, alas ! this pleasant family arrangement did not turn out at all according to expectation. James Knowles was great upon elocution, but he pinned his faith upon Thomas Sheridan's antiquated “Art of Reading,” which enjoined the old monotonous up-and-down mouthing, without passion or expression, that obtained upon the stage in the author's days. Sheridan was an ardent advocate for the natural school of expression. So the two masters disagreed ; then they quarrelled in the school and out of the school, until they made it a battleground of the two styles, and the heads of the establishment began to interfere. At last, in disgust, Sheridan threw up the appointment, left the town, and went over to Glasgow. But the elder Knowles was not so easily got rid of; he refused to accept his congé, set the heads at defiance, locked himself up in the house which belonged to his appointment, and stood a siege for about a fortnight before he gave way and resigned.

At Glasgow, Sheridan started afresh as teacher of grammar and elocution, and was soon surrounded by as many friends and pupils as he had left behind. Never was teacher such a favourite with his boys; he loved them with the affection of a father, and there was not one of them who would not have gone through fire and water to have served “Paddy Knowles," as they affectionately called him, almost to his face. Teaching lads to declaim Shakespeare was not the employment to destroy the old sock-and-buskin associations, and our schoolmaster was now employing his spare moments, which were few, in composing a tragedy, called Caius Gracchus, which in 1815 was represented with great applause at the Belfast Theatre, and with more profit to the author, it may be added, than Brian Boroihme. Not unacceptable were such little additions to his hard-earned income, for children were coming fast; and although a more prudent and selfish man might have lived comfortably and saved money out of the income he made, Sheridan had some difficulty at times to make both ends meet. The father was a constant drain upon his resources,


and, soon after the Belfast fraças, took up his abode with his son; and everybody that came to the large-hearted, thoughtless creature with a story of distress was certain to extract a few shillings from his pocket.

About the time of the success of Caius Gracchus, Kean, now in the zenith of his fame, came to stay at Glasgow; and Knowles, believing all men to be as generous as himself, rushed off to see him with the MS. of the tragedy in his pocket, quite convinced that his quondam friend would receive him and Caius Gracchus with open arms. I am sorry to say that he was disappointed, and that he found the strolling player and the great London favourite two very different persons. Mortified by his reception, he took an abrupt leave. But when, a little time afterwards, Kean paid a second visit to Glasgow, he sent for Knowles, and gave him a commission to write a tragedy upon the subject of Virginius The former slight was forgotten in a moment, and, red-hot with enthusiasm, Sheridan set to work upon his delightful task; his teaching occupied thirteen hours out of the twenty-four, yet, nevertheless, the work was completed in three months. Alas! was ever man to experience such a bitter disappointment! In the meantime, the managers of Drury Lane had accepted another play, bearing the same title, in which Kean was to appear. It must have been some satisfaction to our mortified author, however, when he heard of its failure; it ran only three nights, and was never printed. Henow offered his tragedy to the manager of the Glasgow theatre, who produced it, and, although that most mediocre and conventional of actors, John Cooper, personated the hero, it was received with great applause, and ran fourteen or fifteen nights. A friend of Macready’s sent him the MS. to read, with a glowing recommendation. In his “Reminiscences" Macready tells us that he regarded the task with no goodwill, but that once begun he soon became absorbed in the interest of the story, till at its close he found himself in a great state of excitement. He at once wrote a warm letter of appreciation to the author, and got the manager of Covent Garden to accept the play. Harris, however, would not expend one sixpence upon scenery or dresses. Yet it was finely cast: Charles Kemble was the Icilius; Terry (Scott's friend) was Dentatus; Abbott, Appius ; and the beautiful Maria Foote, Virginia. In the early scenes, in consequence of Kemble's hoarseness, success was doubtful; but in the third act the audience were thoroughly roused into enthusiasm ; and, to quote Macready,

« AnteriorContinuar »