The Foxy Footman
Copyright 2021, All rights reserved
Just look at me, standing on this stage waiting for the curtain to open, dressed in a footman costume! If only poor Aunt Mary had lived to see this day, she would have been so proud. I remember her taking me to see my first play on her half-day off from work. She saved enough from her pittance wage as lady’s maid to get us each a standing place in the pit. I was awestruck by actors strutting across the boards.
“One day, you’ll be a wunnerful actor, Bart,” she had predicted. “Mark my words.”
Playacting was no more than a fiddler’s dream to a poor boy like me, born in 1673 to Lilly, an honest strumpet in a Southwark bawdy house. I never knew my natural father’s name; only that he had been a gentleman of means. Or so she always told me.
He first met Lilly at the St. Bartholomew fair, in the “soiled dove” tent. Which is why my Christian name is Bartholomew. A mouthful. As for my unusual surname? Well, here is how that happened. Ma died when I was eight. On her deathbed, she pressed a silver buckle into my hand, which had broken off the boot worn by my reputed father on his last visit to Southwark. Assured me she had not stolen it but had kept it hoping he would return; made me promise I would never sell it. Perchance it would lead me to him one day.
“This is your keepsake, Bartholomew Buckle. A gipsy foretold it to be your good luck talisman. No harm can befall you as long as it remains in your possession.”
Although I went to live with Aunt Mary and her husband Pete in East London after Ma died, I kept the name Buckle and none of my buddies ever questioned it, or I would have pummelled them.
Growing up in East London during the days when King Charlie ruled England, I hung round the backstage doors of the theatres in Covent Garden in my spare time. Offered to help the stage managers by running errands or carrying messages for them. In exchange, they allowed me to watch rehearsals. How I admired the performers’ exalted speeches. Aunt Mary said that was how I learnt to speak the King’s English proper-like.
Uncle Pete was a carpenter, who worked for Smithfield-Barton at the docks. As a young boy, I worked alongside him. I can tell you he taught me a thing or two about fitting two pieces of lumber together.
“Bart, a strong, sturdy fellow like you can allus’ find work along the docks. Good, steady work.”
One night, at the Kings Arms, I told him my heart was set on becoming an actor. Setting down his mug of gin, he cuffed my ears and warned me to stop my foolish ways. But I was determined.
Back ‘round 1685, Aunt Mary was working as a lady’s maid in Soho Square. When she came home on Sundays, she sometimes brought leftover stale sweets for me. Not that there was enough to fill a tooth. Her mistress ate most of them, she said, shrugging.
“Does your mistress attend the theatre?” I asked as I munched on a crunchy gooseberry tidbit.
“Naw, Mistress Celia never goes outdoors. Complains the city is too dirty. Longs to be home in the country.”
“I wouldn’t care to leave the city for a thousand guineas,” I replied. “No theatres in the country.” Then I would describe the rehearsals I had witnessed. Even recited a few lines, which impressed her.
“Yer a quick learner, Bart, and you do got a certain talent for actin’.”
The years flew by, and I found work building sets and other odd jobs at the theatres. New plays came and went. Some lasted a few days, others a single performance. When I carried discarded scripts to the trash bin, I always kept a few pages for myself.
Stop a moment. You are amazed, aren’t you? Think a poor fellow like me cannot read? Well, think again. Thanks to Aunt Mary, I had a decent scrap of learning, even if it was reading to her from those old scripts.
I thought I was doomed to be a stagehand forever, until a rare opportunity came my way just last week. I was busily pasting a poster on the front wall of the Duke of Gloucester Theatre, announcing the opening of a new play, The Visit. A gentleman of quality approached and read the poster.
“Good sir,” I said, “is there something I can assist you with?”
“Is this new satire any good? My sisters are keen to see a play before we depart London.”
I didn’t exactly know what to say, especially after watching the disastrous dress rehearsal yesterday. The temperamental actress playing the role of Lady Lovely kept missing her cues. The actor portraying Second Footman was staggering drunk; his curly white wig kept falling off his head as he fought to remain upright. The stage manager was at wit’s end because the scenery painter was still not finished with the backdrop I had constructed.
Still and all, here I was out in the late afternoon rain and this gentleman was asking for my opinion of the play. What could I in good conscience say? I hesitated for a moment.
“I think it will be sensational, sir,” I lied.
And to my surprise, the performance was a hit. Rave reviews in the London Times, although I heard the footman slur his one and only line. The stage manager fired him because the man couldn’t hold his liquor. Out he staggered, leaving his costume on the floor of the dressing room.
“Where can I find an actor to fill in for next Friday?” the stage manager asked in despair.
Surely you are not surprised to learn of my answer, are you? After all, when you came to buy tickets two days ago, you watched me rehearsing the part. Even though I am not a member of the actors’ guild, the stage manager offered me the chance at this bit part, reminding me I was still responsible for lighting the footlight candles. I tried on the costume and it fit well enough.
So, you see, I am ready for my long-awaited debut as an actor. And not a bit nervous. Acting is in my blood. And don’t I look handsome in this costume? Call me the foxy footman, if you will.
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