To act for the first time in Shakespeare, in a theater where my sister had already done something for our name, and before royalty, was surely a good beginning.
From April 28, 1856, I played Mamilius every night for one hundred and two nights. I was never ill, and my understudy, Clara Denvil, a very handsome, dark child with flaming eyes, though quite ready and longing to play my part, never had the chance.
I had now taken the first step, but I had taken it without any notion of what I was doing. I was innocent of all art, and while I loved the actual doing of my part, I hated the labor that led up to it. But the time was soon to come when I was to be fired by a passion for work. Meanwhile I was unconsciously learning a number of lessons which were to be most useful to me in my subsequent career.
From April 1856 until 1859 I acted constantly at the Princess’s Theater with the Keans, spending the summer holidays in acting at Ryde. My whole life was the theater, and naturally all my early memories are connected with it. At breakfast father would begin the day’s “coaching.” Often I had to lay down my fork and say my lines. He would conduct these extra rehearsals anywhere—in the street, the ’bus—we were never safe! I remember vividly going into a chemist’s shop and being stood upon a stool to say my part to the chemist! Such leisure as I had from my profession was spent in “minding” the younger children—an occupation in which I delighted. They all had very pretty hair, and I used to wash it and comb it out until it looked as fine and bright as floss silk.
It is argued now that stage life is bad for a young child, and children are not allowed by law to go on the stage until they are ten years old—quite a mature age in my young days! I cannot discuss the whole question here, and must content myself with saying that during my three years at the Princess’s I was a very strong, happy, and healthy child. I was never out of the bill except during the run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when, through an unfortunate accident, I broke my toe. I was playing Puck, my second part on any stage, and had come up through a trap at the end of the last act to give the final speech. My sister Kate was playing Titania that night as understudy to Carlotta Leclercq. Up I came—but not quite up, for the man shut the trapdoor too soon and caught my toe. I screamed. Kate rushed to me and banged her foot on the stage, but the man only closed the trap tighter, mistaking the signal.
“Oh, Katie! Katie!” I cried. “Oh, Nelly! Nelly!” said poor Kate helplessly. Then Mrs. Kean came rushing on and made them open the trap and release my poor foot.
“Finish the play, dear,” she whispered excitedly, “and I’ll double your salary!” There was Kate holding me up on one side and Mrs. Kean on the other. Well, I did finish the play in a fashion. The text ran something like this—