Books and Favorite Scenes: Dickens' Dog-and-Pony Show

An idle question from John Martin made me look up my favorite character in Dickens, the theatrical manager Crummles from Nicholas Nickleby. Crummles is a relative of the mountebank Fox and Cat in Pinocchio and the Mouse from Pogo, featured in my masthead, but I suspect they were all carved from life.

... Nicholas was prepared for something odd, but not for something quite so odd as the sight he encountered. At the upper end of the room, were a couple of boys, one of them very tall and the other very short, both
dressed as sailors--or at least as theatrical sailors, with belts, buckles, pigtails, and pistols complete--fighting what is called in play-bills a terrific combat, with two of those short broad-swords with basket hilts which are commonly used at our minor theatres. The short boy had gained a great advantage over the tall boy, who was reduced to mortal strait, and both were overlooked by a large heavy man, perched against the corner of a table, who emphatically adjured them to strike a
little more fire out of the swords, and they couldn't fail to bring the house down, on the very first night.

'Mr Vincent Crummles,' said the landlord with an air of great deference.
'This is the young gentleman.'

Mr Vincent Crummles received Nicholas with an inclination of the head,
something between the courtesy of a Roman emperor and the nod of a pot
companion; and bade the landlord shut the door and begone.

'There's a picture,' said Mr Crummles, motioning Nicholas not to advance
and spoil it. 'The little 'un has him; if the big 'un doesn't knock
under, in three seconds, he's a dead man. Do that again, boys.'

The two combatants went to work afresh, and chopped away until the
swords emitted a shower of sparks: to the great satisfaction of Mr
Crummles, who appeared to consider this a very great point indeed. The
engagement commenced with about two hundred chops administered by the
short sailor and the tall sailor alternately, without producing any
particular result, until the short sailor was chopped down on one knee;
but this was nothing to him, for he worked himself about on the one knee
with the assistance of his left hand, and fought most desperately until
the tall sailor chopped his sword out of his grasp. Now, the inference
was, that the short sailor, reduced to this extremity, would give in at
once and cry quarter, but, instead of that, he all of a sudden drew
a large pistol from his belt and presented it at the face of the tall
sailor, who was so overcome at this (not expecting it) that he let
the short sailor pick up his sword and begin again. Then, the chopping
recommenced, and a variety of fancy chops were administered on both
sides; such as chops dealt with the left hand, and under the leg, and
over the right shoulder, and over the left; and when the short sailor
made a vigorous cut at the tall sailor's legs, which would have shaved
them clean off if it had taken effect, the tall sailor jumped over the
short sailor's sword, wherefore to balance the matter, and make it all
fair, the tall sailor administered the same cut, and the short sailor
jumped over HIS sword. After this, there was a good deal of dodging
about, and hitching up of the inexpressibles in the absence of braces,
and then the short sailor (who was the moral character evidently, for he
always had the best of it) made a violent demonstration and closed with
the tall sailor, who, after a few unavailing struggles, went down,
and expired in great torture as the short sailor put his foot upon his
breast, and bored a hole in him through and through.

'That'll be a double ENCORE if you take care, boys,' said Mr Crummles.
'You had better get your wind now and change your clothes.'

Having addressed these words to the combatants, he saluted Nicholas, who
then observed that the face of Mr Crummles was quite proportionate in
size to his body; that he had a very full under-lip, a hoarse voice, as
though he were in the habit of shouting very much, and very short
black hair, shaved off nearly to the crown of his head--to admit (as
he afterwards learnt) of his more easily wearing character wigs of any
shape or pattern.

'What did you think of that, sir?' inquired Mr Crummles.

'Very good, indeed--capital,' answered Nicholas.

'You won't see such boys as those very often, I think,' said Mr

Nicholas assented--observing that if they were a little better match--

'Match!' cried Mr Crummles.

'I mean if they were a little more of a size,' said Nicholas, explaining

'Size!' repeated Mr Crummles; 'why, it's the essence of the combat that
there should be a foot or two between them. How are you to get up the
sympathies of the audience in a legitimate manner, if there isn't a
little man contending against a big one?--unless there's at least five
to one, and we haven't hands enough for that business in our company.'

'I see,' replied Nicholas. 'I beg your pardon. That didn't occur to me,
I confess.'

'It's the main point,' said Mr Crummles. 'I open at Portsmouth the day
after tomorrow. If you're going there, look into the theatre, and see
how that'll tell.'

Nicholas promised to do so, if he could, and drawing a chair near the
fire, fell into conversation with the manager at once. He was very
talkative and communicative, stimulated perhaps, not only by his natural
disposition, but by the spirits and water he sipped very plentifully, or
the snuff he took in large quantities from a piece of whitey-brown paper
in his waistcoat pocket. He laid open his affairs without the smallest
reserve, and descanted at some length upon the merits of his company,
and the acquirements of his family; of both of which, the two
broad-sword boys formed an honourable portion. There was to be
a gathering, it seemed, of the different ladies and gentlemen at
Portsmouth on the morrow, whither the father and sons were proceeding
(not for the regular season, but in the course of a wandering
speculation), after fulfilling an engagement at Guildford with the
greatest applause.

'You are going that way?' asked the manager.

'Ye-yes,' said Nicholas. 'Yes, I am.'

'Do you know the town at all?' inquired the manager, who seemed to
consider himself entitled to the same degree of confidence as he had
himself exhibited.

'No,' replied Nicholas.

'Never there?'


Mr Vincent Crummles gave a short dry cough, as much as to say, 'If you
won't be communicative, you won't;' and took so many pinches of snuff
from the piece of paper, one after another, that Nicholas quite wondered
where it all went to.

While he was thus engaged, Mr Crummles looked, from time to time, with
great interest at Smike, with whom he had appeared considerably struck
from the first. He had now fallen asleep, and was nodding in his chair.

'Excuse my saying so,' said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas, and
sinking his voice, 'but what a capital countenance your friend has got!'

'Poor fellow!' said Nicholas, with a half-smile, 'I wish it were a
little more plump, and less haggard.'

'Plump!' exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, 'you'd spoil it for

'Do you think so?'

'Think so, sir! Why, as he is now,' said the manager, striking his knee
emphatically; 'without a pad upon his body, and hardly a touch of paint
upon his face, he'd make such an actor for the starved business as was
never seen in this country. Only let him be tolerably well up in the
Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, with the slightest possible dab of red
on the tip of his nose, and he'd be certain of three rounds the moment
he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O.P.'

'You view him with a professional eye,' said Nicholas, laughing.

'And well I may,' rejoined the manager. 'I never saw a young fellow so
regularly cut out for that line, since I've been in the profession. And
I played the heavy children when I was eighteen months old.'

The appearance of the beef-steak pudding, which came in simultaneously
with the junior Vincent Crummleses, turned the conversation to other
matters, and indeed, for a time, stopped it altogether. These two young
gentlemen wielded their knives and forks with scarcely less address than
their broad-swords, and as the whole party were quite as sharp set as
either class of weapons, there was no time for talking until the supper
had been disposed of.

The Master Crummleses had no sooner swallowed the last procurable
morsel of food, than they evinced, by various half-suppressed yawns and
stretchings of their limbs, an obvious inclination to retire for the
night, which Smike had betrayed still more strongly: he having, in the
course of the meal, fallen asleep several times while in the very act of
eating. Nicholas therefore proposed that they should break up at
once, but the manager would by no means hear of it; vowing that he had
promised himself the pleasure of inviting his new acquaintance to
share a bowl of punch, and that if he declined, he should deem it very
unhandsome behaviour.

'Let them go,' said Mr Vincent Crummles, 'and we'll have it snugly and
cosily together by the fire.'

Nicholas was not much disposed to sleep--being in truth too anxious--so,
after a little demur, he accepted the offer, and having exchanged a
shake of the hand with the young Crummleses, and the manager having
on his part bestowed a most affectionate benediction on Smike, he sat
himself down opposite to that gentleman by the fireside to assist in
emptying the bowl, which soon afterwards appeared, steaming in a
manner which was quite exhilarating to behold, and sending forth a most
grateful and inviting fragrance.

But, despite the punch and the manager, who told a variety of stories,
and smoked tobacco from a pipe, and inhaled it in the shape of snuff,
with a most astonishing power, Nicholas was absent and dispirited. His
thoughts were in his old home, and when they reverted to his present
condition, the uncertainty of the morrow cast a gloom upon him, which
his utmost efforts were unable to dispel. His attention wandered;
although he heard the manager's voice, he was deaf to what he said; and
when Mr Vincent Crummles concluded the history of some long adventure
with a loud laugh, and an inquiry what Nicholas would have done under
the same circumstances, he was obliged to make the best apology in his
power, and to confess his entire ignorance of all he had been talking

'Why, so I saw,' observed Mr Crummles. 'You're uneasy in your mind.
What's the matter?'

Nicholas could not refrain from smiling at the abruptness of the
question; but, thinking it scarcely worth while to parry it, owned that
he was under some apprehensions lest he might not succeed in the object
which had brought him to that part of the country.

'And what's that?' asked the manager.

'Getting something to do which will keep me and my poor fellow-traveller
in the common necessaries of life,' said Nicholas. 'That's the truth.
You guessed it long ago, I dare say, so I may as well have the credit of
telling it you with a good grace.'

'What's to be got to do at Portsmouth more than anywhere else?' asked Mr
Vincent Crummles, melting the sealing-wax on the stem of his pipe in the
candle, and rolling it out afresh with his little finger.

'There are many vessels leaving the port, I suppose,' replied Nicholas.
'I shall try for a berth in some ship or other. There is meat and drink
there at all events.'

'Salt meat and new rum; pease-pudding and chaff-biscuits,' said the
manager, taking a whiff at his pipe to keep it alight, and returning to
his work of embellishment.

'One may do worse than that,' said Nicholas. 'I can rough it, I believe,
as well as most young men of my age and previous habits.'

'You need be able to,' said the manager, 'if you go on board ship; but
you won't.'

'Why not?'

'Because there's not a skipper or mate that would think you worth your
salt, when he could get a practised hand,' replied the manager; 'and
they as plentiful there, as the oysters in the streets.'

'What do you mean?' asked Nicholas, alarmed by this prediction, and
the confident tone in which it had been uttered. 'Men are not born able
seamen. They must be reared, I suppose?'

Mr Vincent Crummles nodded his head. 'They must; but not at your age, or
from young gentlemen like you.'

There was a pause. The countenance of Nicholas fell, and he gazed
ruefully at the fire.

'Does no other profession occur to you, which a young man of your figure
and address could take up easily, and see the world to advantage in?'
asked the manager.

'No,' said Nicholas, shaking his head.

'Why, then, I'll tell you one,' said Mr Crummles, throwing his pipe into
the fire, and raising his voice. 'The stage.'

'The stage!' cried Nicholas, in a voice almost as loud.

'The theatrical profession,' said Mr Vincent Crummles. 'I am in the
theatrical profession myself, my wife is in the theatrical profession,
my children are in the theatrical profession. I had a dog that lived
and died in it from a puppy; and my chaise-pony goes on, in Timour the
Tartar. I'll bring you out, and your friend too. Say the word. I want a

'I don't know anything about it,' rejoined Nicholas, whose breath had
been almost taken away by this sudden proposal. 'I never acted a part in
my life, except at school.'

'There's genteel comedy in your walk and manner, juvenile tragedy
in your eye, and touch-and-go farce in your laugh,' said Mr Vincent
Crummles. 'You'll do as well as if you had thought of nothing else but
the lamps, from your birth downwards.'

Nicholas thought of the small amount of small change that would remain
in his pocket after paying the tavern bill; and he hesitated.

'You can be useful to us in a hundred ways,' said Mr Crummles.
'Think what capital bills a man of your education could write for the

'Well, I think I could manage that department,' said Nicholas.

'To be sure you could,' replied Mr Crummles. '"For further particulars
see small hand-bills"--we might have half a volume in every one of
'em. Pieces too; why, you could write us a piece to bring out the whole
strength of the company, whenever we wanted one.'

'I am not quite so confident about that,' replied Nicholas. 'But I dare
say I could scribble something now and then, that would suit you.'

'We'll have a new show-piece out directly,' said the manager. 'Let
me see--peculiar resources of this establishment--new and splendid
scenery--you must manage to introduce a real pump and two washing-tubs.'

'Into the piece?' said Nicholas.

'Yes,' replied the manager. 'I bought 'em cheap, at a sale the other
day, and they'll come in admirably. That's the London plan. They look up
some dresses, and properties, and have a piece written to fit 'em. Most
of the theatres keep an author on purpose.'

'Indeed!' cried Nicholas.

'Oh, yes,' said the manager; 'a common thing. It'll look very well
in the bills in separate lines--Real pump!--Splendid tubs!--Great
attraction! You don't happen to be anything of an artist, do you?'

'That is not one of my accomplishments,' rejoined Nicholas.

'Ah! Then it can't be helped,' said the manager. 'If you had been,
we might have had a large woodcut of the last scene for the posters,
showing the whole depth of the stage, with the pump and tubs in the
middle; but, however, if you're not, it can't be helped.'

'What should I get for all this?' inquired Nicholas, after a few
moments' reflection. 'Could I live by it?'

'Live by it!' said the manager. 'Like a prince! With your own salary,
and your friend's, and your writings, you'd make--ah! you'd make a pound
a week!'

'You don't say so!'

'I do indeed, and if we had a run of good houses, nearly double the

Nicholas shrugged his shoulders; but sheer destitution was before him;
and if he could summon fortitude to undergo the extremes of want and
hardship, for what had he rescued his helpless charge if it were only to
bear as hard a fate as that from which he had wrested him? It was easy
to think of seventy miles as nothing, when he was in the same town with
the man who had treated him so ill and roused his bitterest thoughts;
but now, it seemed far enough. What if he went abroad, and his mother or
Kate were to die the while?

Without more deliberation, he hastily declared that it was a bargain,
and gave Mr Vincent Crummles his hand upon it.

As Mr Crummles had a strange four-legged animal in the inn stables,
which he called a pony, and a vehicle of unknown design, on which he
bestowed the appellation of a four-wheeled phaeton, Nicholas proceeded
on his journey next morning with greater ease than he had expected: the
manager and himself occupying the front seat: and the Master Crummleses
and Smike being packed together behind, in company with a wicker basket
defended from wet by a stout oilskin, in which were the broad-swords,
pistols, pigtails, nautical costumes, and other professional necessaries
of the aforesaid young gentlemen.

The pony took his time upon the road, and--possibly in consequence
of his theatrical education--evinced, every now and then, a strong
inclination to lie down. However, Mr Vincent Crummles kept him up pretty
well, by jerking the rein, and plying the whip; and when these means
failed, and the animal came to a stand, the elder Master Crummles got
out and kicked him. By dint of these encouragements, he was persuaded
to move from time to time, and they jogged on (as Mr Crummles truly
observed) very comfortably for all parties.

'He's a good pony at bottom,' said Mr Crummles, turning to Nicholas.

He might have been at bottom, but he certainly was not at top, seeing
that his coat was of the roughest and most ill-favoured kind. So,
Nicholas merely observed that he shouldn't wonder if he was.

'Many and many is the circuit this pony has gone,' said Mr Crummles,
flicking him skilfully on the eyelid for old acquaintance' sake. 'He is
quite one of us. His mother was on the stage.'

'Was she?' rejoined Nicholas.

'She ate apple-pie at a circus for upwards of fourteen years,' said the
manager; 'fired pistols, and went to bed in a nightcap; and, in short,
took the low comedy entirely. His father was a dancer.'

'Was he at all distinguished?'

'Not very,' said the manager. 'He was rather a low sort of pony. The
fact is, he had been originally jobbed out by the day, and he never
quite got over his old habits. He was clever in melodrama too, but too
broad--too broad. When the mother died, he took the port-wine business.'

'The port-wine business!' cried Nicholas.

'Drinking port-wine with the clown,' said the manager; 'but he was
greedy, and one night bit off the bowl of the glass, and choked himself,
so his vulgarity was the death of him at last.'

1 comment:

John Martin said...

It makes me happy that my idle questions inspire such things.