JOHN CAMPBELL: A True Story of a Benefit


IN the apocryphal “good old times of the drama,” necessity created many monsters. The “Monster Benefit “was one, and it really meant much more than it does in these rapid times of railway and telegraphy. A benefit often paid the arrears of salary, and enabled the
poor actor to pay off the obliging butcher, baker, or clear out the brokers, and generally
to “hold up his head,” as he called it, to carry him, and more particularly his, to the next
town, which, with the difficulties of the coaching days of which I write, appeared so much farther off than now.

330px-Henry_Neville.The expense and difficulty of postage and transit obliged many a fine actor to wear out his life in the provinces, and come to an obscure, modest grave in some out-of-the-way churchyard; his ability never having asserted itself, never having become, as it were, public property. His genius belonged only to a circuit, not as now, to the whole world. The word Benefit was thoroughly expressive.It was originated and intended to alleviate some of the many — too many — privations and vexations to which the old actors were too frequently subject.

Vagabond life possessed especial fascination, there was so much hope in it. London was the goal to which every one earnestly strove.

The vital, pressing necessity for the particular benefit of which I write, was the honourable discharge of a long account for attendance and physic for a poor little innocent child, afflicted with fever first, then a lingering ailment which kept him in bed, many, many weary months, never to rise again straight and strong as other children.

The Campbells were leaving the town to try their fortune elsewhere; the doctor must be paid, he had been so kind, so patient, so attentive — all the best feelings of these good
people’s nature were invoked in the discharge of this sacred debt. Had he not saved their child, their only one?  They were, beyond expression, grateful to God and the doctor. True, he had never asked for his fees, nor demanded payment for the physic, but perhaps for that very reason they would have parted with their showiest properties — well, even the clothes off their backs, for this interesting debt: indeed, they often discussed how to “raise the wind,” and calculated to a nicety how much their scanty effects would produce. At last a benefit was suggested, as affording the readiest and most promising settlement. Our hero had hardly acquired that enviable position in the theatre which entitled him to a benefit; consequently, he would have to depend on an attractive bill — never hinting at the great necessity which compelled the appeal to the public.

Arrangements were satisfactorily made with the liberal manager, and the benefit was to take place in something less than three weeks. Then came the great question of what to perform to tempt the public. Campbell was only the “walking gentleman” of the establishment, and the leading man had to be consulted. Campbell would have played
“Richard the Third” because Edmund Kean had made it popular by his marvellous performance, and nothing seemed easier than to copy him, and create the same effect;  but no, the leading man would play Richard, or nothing.

“But you must play the leading part, John, on your benefit night; it’s only right you should,” said John’s loving little wife. “Besides it’s your opportunity; you are clever enough.” Of course she thought him clever enough.

Dear soul. “Will he play Iago to your Othello?” capital suggestion? Would he? Yes, he would! with greatest pleasure, especially as Campbell had so short a time to study it, and would have to buy his “props;” and oh, rapture! possibly couldn’t buy them, and would have to paint his legs as well as his handsome face, thought the leading man.

Genius never sticks at trifles — obstacles are only things to be overcome; nothing should stop him. John Campbell would play “Othello,” and his wife’s favourite piece, “Lilian, the Show Girl;” a tragedy and a drama, “for this night only,” with “Jump Jim Crow,” and a jig in the middle, “By particular desire.” But stop! by whose desire? for there was a truthfulness in these people which asserted itself even in their business transactions. “Wouldn’t it be grand to obtain a patronage? Oh, delightful!””Under the distinguished patronage of ” in large letters when we get it, were the printer’s instructions.

“I’ll ask the Lord of the Manor,” said Campbell; “nothing like the fountain-head; and who knows perhaps he might like to see his name in large letters all over the town. Then again, what a service he will render, if he only knew how much we need all that can be done for us; I’m sure he would. A long journey for three of us, one requiring especial accommodation.

“Poor darling!” he ejaculates (sadly looking towards the bed at the window), “our petty debts, and that blessed doctor’s bill.” Just as he was rushing out (everything had to be done with a rush, between this and the benefit night) the little feeble child called to him, and asked why he didn’t come to talk and play as he used to do? “I’m so lonely, papa, without you.”

“I shall not be long, darling, it will all be over in a fortnight, and then we’ll go to such a beautiful place, far away from here, where we shall be so happy, I hope, my pet; so happy, and want no more.”

“Why, that’s heaven, papa! Shall we go there? I’m so glad! I’ll be very patient for a fortnight.”

He kissed his boy and went his way, with confident steps and cheerful heart, big with
excitement of his benefit preparations and prospects. He reached the great house, as it was called by those who didn’t know its right name, and hesitated which of the many bells to pull. At last he pulled one of them, the “Servants’;” he was too modest to claim a pull at the “Visitors’.” He came to ask a favour, and there is something chilling in having to ask a favour, to say nothing of the ceremony of being shown in, and all the rest of it.

However, he was not shown in; he had not to wait. His lordship had that morning gone away, and they couldn’t tell when he would return — “certainly not for a month, or five weeks.” This was a great disappointment to Campbell, there was no time to get his lordship’s reply by post, and after all it might be unfavourable. I only say might, for hope is always so powerful in aspiring actors; with some the actual is hardly positive enough: they still hope that something might come of it, and it often does.

He retraced his steps, ignoring the disappointment, and utilizing the time by studying his part, to the astonishment of many a wondering native, who listened with horror at the passionate speeches. Campbell became more and more engrossed in his study, and perfectly unconscious of the extraordinary interest he was creating, until at last he found himself roughly arrested by a frantic crowd, who wanted to hurry him off to an asylum as a raving lunatic. He explained, and some friendly person recognizing him, he was liberated.

His wife was, of course, very much amused when he told her his adventure. She thought it was a capital advertisement; in fact, he could not have had a more satisfactory gratuitous advertisement.

But the patronage which was looked upon as the all-important dignity of the occasion,
who could he apply to? who was the next best? “Why, the colonel of the regiment
quartered here, to be sure.” He is, perhaps, better than the other. “Officers are always
great patrons of the drama.”

The next morning he dressed himself in his best: albeit, his best had seen good service in every modern play for the last three years; but the best is always the best, and must be so respected. At all events, he hastened to the barracks in his best; he sent in his name, “Campbell,” a lucky name, for the colonel was a Scotchman, and knew some Campbells, and liked them. “Good fighting clan.” “Show him in.” Heavens! he was shown in; he was admitted to the great presence, and couldn’t help feeling extremely nervous, for the colonel, was a grisly, shock-haired, double-barrelled, hundred-horse-power veteran, whose very presence inspired awe.

“Well, to what am I indebted for this visit, Mr. Campbell?” said he.

Humbly, Campbell revealed himself, and made his request. Now, why should that colonel raise his eyebrows, and twirl his huge muff of a moustache, and hide himself, as it were, behind a barricade of reserve too formidable for the simple occasion?

“Patronage!” growled he; “what for? Why should I bother myself with your affairs?”

“Well, sir,” said Campbell, “I was urged to ask because of the great advantage it would be to us, and because we’ve had hard trials — my wife and I, with an invalid child, and… ”

“I hate plays — won’t go — nothing to give; show him out!”

And out he went in double-quick time, humbled and abashed, as though he had
proposed something too terrible to be tolerated.

This colonel’s crust was very thick indeed. No matter. “Wretched, indeed, is the mouse
which has only one hole for a refuge. The colonel’s not my only refuge; I’ll try the
captains to-morrow.”

The captains were not so easy of access as he had found the colonel; at all events, after waiting an hour, Campbell was taken to two of them — charming fellows, with fair hair and cigarettes — most agreeable — would do anything — get others — fond of a play, especially funny plays — pretty women, they hoped, by-the-bye. What is the lady’s name who desires our patronage?”

“Oh! did I not tell you? I wish it for myself and family.”

“By Jove! for yourself; do anything for the fair sex, anything, by Jove; but so ridiculous for a man — anything for a woman —very sorry. Good morning!” and away they went, without another word, leaving Campbell to find his way out as best he could.

“It is really very disheartening,” he said to his wife, “I shall try no more.” There were no more to try, but that was John’s hopeful way of putting it. “Never mind, my dear,” whispered his wife, with a kiss, ” leave it Vague, be satisfied with ‘under distinguished patronage;’ we shall have a good house, and all our patrons are distinguished.”

The bills appeared with a flourish of trumpets —

Under Distinguished Patronage,

Unprecedented Attraction.

For this Night Only;

and all the rest of it. Although not the leading man, Campbell was very popular, and the kindly public were acquainted with his misfortune — the poor bed-ridden child created the utmost sympathy.

Many and many whose business necessitated passing the house, had seen the little fellow in his bed at the window, and remarked the mother’s tender care — many and many a sympathizing soul looked up to the window and blew kisses from the opposite side of
the street, and the urchins of the neighbourhood used to play in front of the house, to
amuse and interest the little prisoner; and so days slipped away and brought them nearer
and nearer to the great occasion. The doctor’s dreaded bill had been requested and duly forwarded — it was considerately made as little as possible, still it amounted to the
awful sum of twenty pounds.

Dare they hope for as much profit from the benefit? and then, how about the other things? Campbell had already made up his mind to walk his journey. She would have cheerfully shared his pilgrimage, but the child couldn’t be left, so, perforce, they must go by coach.

While the wife was busy in the baby’s bedroom, and Campbell was practising some important points, in his Daggerwood dressing-gown, there came a startling aristocratic knock. In an instant the house was in a flutter.

“Some ladies for Mr. and Mrs. Campbell.”

“Good gracious! my dear, I’m so untidy; you go.”

“No, you go!”

Whilst they were deciding who should go, and making themselves smart enough to be seen, the young ladies in the parlour were quietly inspecting the apartment, a little disappointed that it was not such a palace as they had seen on the stage, or pictured in their fond imaginations, and wondering whether the popular actor would shake hands, or merely bow: they hoped he would shake hands —so nice to think of it while he was acting — surely this is not his right abode! A pleasant chat, a few pounds worth of tickets for the benefit, the desired shake of the hand, and they went away assured he was the best actor living, and a perfect hero of romance.

As the eventful day approached, the Campbells became more and more familiar with friendly calls for tickets, and occasional small sums in excess of the theatre price from sympathizing patrons; indeed, they made a point of being “tidy” and fit to be seen every day. Nothing, however, delighted them so much as the following letter from the doctor, for they detected in it that noble charity which shuns publicity, and effects its purpose without humiliating the recipient.

“Dear Mrs. Campbell, — Please send, me twenty-five pounds’ worth of places for your
benefit; so many of my friends desire to be present on the occasion. I heartily wish you
a bumper, and brilliant success in the plays you have selected. Notes enclosed, ” etc. , etc.

At last the day arrives with all its intensified anxiety. Just such weather as sends people eagerly into the theatre with fair prospects of getting home dry and comfortable. Crowds at boxes, pit, and gallery. Campbell was elated beyond expression at the brilliant prospect before him.

“Oh, Louie!” he said to his wife with a fond embrace, “we shall have such a glorious house;” the wife lifted her sweet lips to receive her handsome husband’s caress with a glad happy smile and tender pressure of the hand, to show the mutual sympathy of these united souls.

“Yes, John, a glorious house! Oh, the gladness of it. No debt, no doubtingly looking forward to the morrow, comfort for their little afflicted one, comparative wealth for months to come.”

And now the bustle and noise of the filling house as they settle into their seats; the pleasant recognition of neighbour and friend; the tumultuous buzz, subsiding only as
the notes of the musicians attract the ear.

Enthusiastic applause and calls after every act greeted our hero throughout the play;
he was completely successful. The leading man even, admitted that “he was carried
away,” and “didn’t think it was in him.”

After the tragedy, Campbell came to the front, in accordance with the custom of that
time, to thank his friends, and announce the repetition of the performance the following
evening. Full of hopes and life, he acquitted himself admirably.

The affectionate wife’s congratulations were reserved for home. She had now her part of the entertainment to perform, and sweetly pretty she looked as “Lilian, the Show Girl,” upon which the curtain was about to rise. I shall not attempt a description of the piece; suffice that it came successfully to the part where the gipsy lies hidden in the sack, and is shot at by Everard. “Stand aside,” he says to Lilian, “I’ll see if I can hit it” He fires high, according to theatrical custom — and — oh! horror! a groan, one pitiful groan, and a thud — and a brave, strongman fell from stair to stair — dead! Conceive the agony of it. Dead!

At the moment of the shot, Campbell was coming downstairs from his dressing-room, with a half-uttered joke and a smile on his lips, he was so happy. There, at the foot of the stairs, he lay now motionless — no one could believe it. “Great God! not shot! the groan must have come from the boy in the sack. No! raise him — carry him into the green-room — there is no wound — send for help — it may be but a fit — give air.” Alas! no air shall ever more give life to that breast; no wife’s tender voice rouse the heart’s joy —he’s dead.

An electric thrill pervades the place as by magic; it is known everywhere. “Campbell’s shot! Campbell’s shot!”

The leading man kneels by his side, and takes the yielding hand in his — no enmities now — all hushed before the Great King of Terrors. “Don’t let the wife in!” “Shut the door; spare her the knowledge even for a short hour!” But no, the terrible truth is not to be kept even from the ear that least would hear it. An undefinable fear, a ghastly dread, has taken possession of the woman’s heart, the last to know what has happened. Kindly hands attempt to draw her from the fatal fascination of that room. Averted eyes, expressive silence, speak more eloquently than words — she shudders! ”

What is it? why do you hold me back? Something terrible has happened — I must, I will know!”

“Keep back, Mrs. Campbell, it is all right.” But the tears in the speaker’s eyes belie his words.

The wife dashes forward, makes her way through the unwilling crowd, who fain would
spare her that sight of death. A piteous wail comes from her tortured heart, “Oh, John! my husband!”

Her eyes starting from her head, she looks round on the pitying faces, who can do nothing to help her. She looks at his, that one face which was her world — “he’s gone! for ever gone!” At that moment the kind old doctor arrived; the little hope which might have lurked in friendly bosoms was soon dispelled. One drop of blood, one drop alone revealed the cause of death.There, over the region of the heart, was a wound almost too small to be seen, but enough to send him to eternity. Let us leave this scene of horror!

“My papa! my papa! oh come to me,” cried the boy, with outstretched hands, for he had lain awake all night, wondering why none of them came home. The door opened, but not to bring to him the loving face he longed so much to see.

The mother was carried into the room prostrate. They take the affrighted child from her side, and as they carry the little shivering, trembling form from the room, the mother’s stony eyes follow him — follow him, and then a hunger comes to them. A broken voice is heard, “My boy! my boy!” and there, locked in the mother’s arms, they leave the orphaned and the widowed together.

My sad story is told, and if it has shown that an actor’s life is not all a summer holiday, that his triumphs are not always victories, that his joys may be tempered with sorrows, my purpose is answered.

The ever-kind doctor exerted himself to find the cause of death, and tracing the course of the tiny wound over the heart, he discovered that a pin — a common pin — had entered the heart, and lodged there. How it got into the gun no one could tell.

Mrs. Campbell found friends in her great trouble, and the public espoused her cause. Time, the great healer, brought its softening balm; but no time could efface the memory of John Campbell’s tragic end.



About libros19blog

Central Florida
Gallery | This entry was posted in Theatre and the Stage. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s