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Title: The Unpremeditated Curtain
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200821h-html
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XLII, Jul 1915, pp 187- 192

THIS is one of the stories of the little man with the dark curls and the gold ear-rings, a story of Gipsy and what he always considered to be the greatest dramatic triumph of his life. For it will be remembered that the man in question was a born playwright, and shared Shakespeare's opinion as to all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. It was only certain defects in Gipsy's education— But this I have mentioned before. It all came about so simply, too.

It was at the time when Gipsy, together with some ten thousand other excavators, was working on the Welsh watershed which was to supply a great Northern town in course of time. And here was scope for all the Zingari's peculiar talents and natural instincts in the way of fieldcraft, which a crass bench of local magistrates would insist upon calling poaching. For there were covers on the hillside—to say nothing of grouse in the heather—the little streams were full of trout, and up at the head of the main tributary the lordly salmon lay. All of which, in its season, was a lasting joy to Gipsy, to whom the fine art of the primeval man was an open book. He was a good sportsman, too—killed for the pot and the joy of the game, and eke for the benefit of his neighbours. And so far no keeper had laid violent hands upon him, which was Gipsy's one fear. It was the spice of terror that gave zest to the feast, the one haunting trouble that kept him bright and clear.

Now, it was beautiful March weather, with the streams running as fine as a star, and the moon was at the full. And, moreover, in the hut that Gipsy shared with a married navvy was a small girl, to whom the little man was sincerely attached. The small girl was just getting over a severe attack of influenza, her appetite was capricious, and, moreover, the doctor had said something about a fish diet. This was not so simple as it seemed, until Gipsy bent his masterly mind to grapple with the situation. Up yonder in the headwaters were salmon, and down there was Gipsy. There is no reason to labour the analogy.

An afternoon or two later Gipsy set out on a five-mile walk to Prestyn, and there in a fishmonger's shop he found the very thing he wanted. They were small objects, tiny crustaceans, half a dozen of which Gipsy purchased at the outlay of a shilling. With these in his pocket he repaired back to the camp, and at nine o'clock the same night he was picking his way daintily along the banks of the headwater with an eighteen-feet salmon-rod in his hand. The salmon-rod was a secret so far as the camp was concerned, and its hiding-place was a hollow alder tree on the side of the stream. Altogether, it was a pretty adventure as it stood. The smell of spring was in the air, and the scent of the good red earth was fragrant in the little man's nostrils. For Nature was talking to him as he went along; there was not a blade of grass or a twig full of sap without its message. And, moreover, Gipsy was a master of his craft; the tapering line he threw dropped in the stream as clean and sweet as a razor edge, the bait fell without a sound. It was Gipsy's wits against the big fish fresh-run from the sea, and the odds were in favour of those elusive shadows, for the water was low and fine, and no "Doctor" or "Jock Scott" so much as excited the flutter of a fin. In the ordinary way Gispy would have scorned to do what he was doing now, but he wanted the fish badly, and he had to jockey the odds so as to place the match on a more level footing. It was his wit against that of the salmon, and Gipsy was going to win.

He had not walked a quarter of a mile, or made more than a score of casts, before he was into a fish. He could see the heavy swirl and the little ripples as the bait was sucked down, and then the fight began. It was a pretty little scrap, and it was going hard with the furiously fighting fish, when a hand was laid on Gipsy's shoulder. He dropped his point suddenly, the salmon gave a sudden lunge, and twenty feet of line came back like a boomerang into the sportsman's face. He was annoyed and angry at this unseemly interruption, and then it was borne in upon him that more important considerations were at stake. Without waiting for a word of explanation, Gipsy dropped his rod and turned on the keeper. The latter was full of fight—he had the weight of law and authority on his side, and his pluck was beyond doubt—but he was up against a wily foe, who had learnt his cunning of fence in a dozen countries. There was a touch of jiu-jitsu, with just a suspicion of savate and perhaps a suggestion of Cumberland. Anyway, a few minutes later and the keeper was lying with head buried in the sprouting heather, and Gipsy was kneeling on the small of his back. The one idea uppermost in the little man's mind had been to conceal his face from the foe, and so far he felt tolerably sure that he had been successful. He did not want to be identified, which in his case would be nearly as bad as being led ignominiously to the police station at the foot of the big dam.

"You can get up," he gasped. "And don't you look over your shoulder, mate. If you do, I'll push your face through the back of your head! What do you mean by comin' and interruptin' a gentleman in the middle of his sport? Now, you see that hut yonder? Will you just walk straight to that? And mind what I tell you. Remember Lot's wife, cully."

This timely allusion was evidently not wasted, for the keeper strode doggedly on in the direction of the hut, whilst Gipsy followed behind, his nimble mind busy with the immediate future. Here in effect was a scene from a potential drama, and Gipsy was treating it accordingly. The situation was clear in his mind now; he knew exactly what to do. Moreover, he had, in his capacity as foreman, the master-key to the store huts in his pocket. Presently he passed the key over the shoulder of his prisoner and signified the sullen captive to open the door.

"Got any matches?" he demanded.

The prisoner gave a short negative, and Gipsy chuckled. Inside the hut the light was dim, but not dim enough to obscure the outline of some scores of huge cartridge cases piled up on the floor. They were empty of dynamite for the moment, but the prisoner was not likely to know that. From a box Gipsy took a double handful of small detonators and scattered them liberally all over the floor.

"Now, you sit on that box," he said. "I don't mind telling you that those drainpipe-looking concerns are dynamite cartridges. There is enough dynamite here to blow up half the county. These little jokers I've scattered all over the floor is what's called detonators. Step on one of them and you are done for, old pard. Understand that? So long as you squats there you are safe. Somebody's sure to come along about six in the morning, and then it will be all right. You ain't got no matches, and, when I lock that door, this place will be as dark as that empty mind of yourn. So long!"

With that, Gipsy locked the door of the hut with an easy mind and a pleased feeling that few professional playwrights could have done any better. Then he went back to his fishing, secure in the knowledge that he was safe, and that his practical philanthropy had the approval of the gods. He repaired his line and baited a wicked-looking triangle, and at his fourth cast was into another splendid fish.

He could concentrate all his energy upon the sport now, and half an hour later a quivering bar of silver lay on the grass in the moonhght. And then came another interruption, slightly more unpleasant than the last.

"Well, of all the infernal cool cheek!" a voice said.

Well, of all the infernal cool cheek!

Gipsy looked up suddenly. He was face to face with an exceedingly useful-looking individual, brown and lean and hard, and evidently in the pink of condition. This was a very different proposition to the somewhat corpulent keeper, and, like the good general that he was, Gipsy recognised it at a glance. He made a dive through the legs of the fresh foeman, bringing him heavily to the ground, then struck out at top speed along the bank of the river. But there was no shaking off the lean man, and though Gipsy turned about like a hare, the other held on doggedly behind, till the little man's lungs began to contract and his heart was pounding against his ribs painfully. Then the man behind dropped his left shoulder and dived for Gripsy's legs in the manner of a star three-quarter back—as indeed, he had been—and brought Gipsy to the ground without a breath in his body. The stars were reeling overhead and the pines on the hillside seemed to be tossing in a fantastic saraband.

"Now, then," the lean man said, "you sit quietly down there and listen to me. I want you to know that this for the time being is my stretch of water. Not to be unduly ostentatious, I beg to say that I paid two hundred pounds for it. Incidentally, I might mention that I have been flogging this blessed stream for six weeks now, without so much as seeing a fin. Relaxation, of course, and a change from the nerve-strain of writing melodrama, but at the same time it leaves one just a little unsatisfied. And here you come along, a mere poaching navvy, who has probably never heard of the divine bard of Avon, catching fish as if you had been used to it all your life—in the moonlight, too! Now, what the deuce do you mean by it? Or, rather, I should say, how on earth do you manage it?"

Gipsy sat up and grinned. He no longer saw grim visions of six weeks in Prestyn Gaol; he was only cognisant of the fact that he was face to face with a brother-humorist, and he had heard it once said in a theatre that one touch of Nature makes the whole world kin. And here he was for the first time in his life actually in the presence of a living, breathing dramatist. He forgot the salmon for the moment.

"You are a bit of all right, guv'nor, you are," he said admiringly. "Fairly wore me down, you did. I knew it was all up directly I caught sight of that brown mug o' yourn. Lor bless you, sir, I'd know a real sportsman if I met him in a dark cellar on a winter's night! You might call me a poacher—perhaps I am, but not one of them sneakin', perishin' blighters as makes money at the game. I'm a gipsy, I am. Born in a tent and lived in the open air all my life. There ain't a bird as flies or a fish as swims as can get the best of me, if I brings my mind to it. And I weren't exactly poaching to-night, guv'nor. You see, there's a kid belonging to my landlady wot's been ill, and she can't do with no regular food. So, thinks I, wot's the matter with a bit o' salmon? And there you are, guv'nor."

The brown-faced man laughed, and Gipsy laughed too, for he was feeling tolerably easy in his mind. It was quite evident that he had made an impression on the other fellow, who appeared to believe every word of this explanation. And in any case Gipsy had no intention of neglecting this God-sent opportunity. He was in the presence of a dramatist, a man who wrote real plays that were produced at real theatres. He was not Gipsy's conception of the traditional playwright, who, from the little man's point of view, should be pale and bent and long of hair, with dreamy eyes half concealed by spectacles.

"Do you know, that's jolly interesting," the dramatist said. "You have given me an idea for a rattling good situation. You see, I came down here to fish—knowing nothing whatever about that sort of thing—and work on a play at the same time. The idea was to toil morning and evening at the desk, and in the afternoon go out and catch huge fishes, which I intended to send to my friends with my kindest regards. In this respect the programme has broken down rather badly, Mr. Navvy. My collaborator and myself have got this thing on our minds. We need encouraging, we need something— Oh, well, you see, we are writing the big autumn drama for Chancery Lane."

Gipsy fairly gasped, for this was beyond his wildest dream. Drama was his theatrical pabulum; from his point of view, the great Chancery Lane autumn drama was the finest production in the world. He had contrived to see most of them, he knew the majority of the striking situations by heart. The two mighty geniuses responsible for this gigantic annual effort were the dim and distant gods of Gipsy's idolatry. And here he was actually face to face with either the famous Mr. Goodheart or the equally famous Mr. Rankin—it did not matter which. The mere fact that nobody would believe Gipsy, when he came to tell the story afterwards, did nothing to poison the crystal stream of his bliss.

"There's plenty of fish in the river, sir," he said.

"Really?" the dramatist replied sadly. "So the keeper says. But I began to believe that someone has been taking advantage of our youth and innocence. I've tried the fish with flies and I've tried them with worms, and to-morrow I was going to tempt them with a novel nutriment of bread and treacle. I'll tell jou what I'll do with you, my friend. If you will show me how to catch fish,I'll give you a ten-pound note, and you can come here and angle whenever you like. What's that? Oh, I don't care. Call me a poacher, if you like—anything is good enough for me, from Christian Science to a nice, big, comfortable net. I want to go back to the club and swagger; I want to talk about my river, don't you know, and that day that Mr. Rankin and myself killed sixteen clean-run fish. Show me how I can stroll out in the moonlight and pick up a brace of those beauties between the whiff of a cigarette. Apparently it can be done."

"That's right, sir," Gipsy grinned; "but I don't mind telling yer straight that I'm poachin'. Lor bless yer 'eart, yer can't catch salmon by moonlight with a fly, and I'll lay any money as your agreement with 'is lordship bars you from taking 'em with a prawn, and that's what I'm using. There ain't no bait in the wide world for a fresh-run fish like a prawn. The fish thinks he's back in the sea again. Now, look 'ere, sir. I've got four prawns in my pocket, and, wot's more, I've got that keeper o' yourn safe locked up in a hut yonder. It ain't a bad story, sir, and perhaps you'd like to 'ear it."

The great dramatist sat smoking his cigarette and laughing like a boy till Gipsy had finished.

"Oh, this is a night to remember!" he cried. "Look here, you've got the making of a dramatist in you. It's not a bad situation, either. I'll make it all right with the keeper presently. Meanwhile, I'm out for blood. Attach the fascinating prawn to the deadly instrument, and let's see what I can make of it. Show me how to catch fish, and if the gratitude of a lifetime—In short, let's get to work."

An hour later and three noble bars of silver, tinged with steely-blue, lay at the feet of the delighted dramatist. He fairly danced round them. Visions of happy afternoons, with the keeper dispatched on long expeditions, danced delightedly before his eyes. There was only one thing for it— Gipsy must come up to the farm cottage, where the great drama was being written, and drink to the great adventure. Nothing loath, Gipsy followed. Here was something to talk about. Here was a proud boast to make, though in all probability no one would believe him. He had made a friend in that walk of life to which occasionally he had turned longing eyes, and, moreover, he had the right to fish those splendid waters when and where he chose, and, more than this, he had been recognised as a fellow-dramatist in the bud.

They came presently to the cottage, the door of which was open, and inside someone appeared to be moaning as if in pain.

"That's Rankin," Goodheart said cheerfully. "He always carries on like that when he is stumped for an idea. As I told you before, we came down here to work out our autumn drama. We've got two big situations, but we want a third to lead up to a huge curtain in front of the fourth act. That's Rankin's job, and he's feeling very badly about it. He ought to have hit on something now long before this, as I told him to-night. But come in, Gipsy. The sight of you may do him good."

The big, stone-flagged sitting-room was ablaze with lamps, and at the table, strewn with papers, a little man, with a large head and a long, drooping moustache, sat groaning dismally. He was biting the stem of a pipe between his teeth, and his aspect was one of genial ferocity.

"I was coming out to look for you," he said. "It's no good, old chap—I can't think of anything. All my ideas are so beastly stagy. What I want is some natural son-of-the-soil sort of chap to form a connecting link. But what, in the name of fortune, have you got there? You don't mean to say—"

"Caught 'em all myself," Goodheart said proudly. "Our friend here put me up to the game. As a piscatorial fascinator, my little gipsy is a genius. It's as easy as possible when you only know how. The 'Open, Sesame' to the heart of a salmon is prawns, and don't you forget it, only it's a dead secret, my boy, so not a word to a soul. But if your stomach is not too proud and your conscience sufficiently elastic, then—prawns!"

Gipsy stood there grinning in the background. He was invited to tell his story again. He was delighted to find in the melancholy man so much capacity for innocent mirth.

"You are a man after my own heart, Mr. Gipsy," he said. "I also am fired with a desire to inundate my friends with salmon. Perhaps, if I caught a fish or two, it would enable me to throw off this profound melancholy, which is not my habitual aspect. Can't you give us an idea—thundering big idea—something between an earthquake and an unexpected general election? You have got the dramatic instinct, if ever I saw it in a man. Unlock your secret bosom and speak, Sphinx."

All this was in the spirit of chaff and uttered with a melancholy cadence that did not deceive Gipsy for a moment. He had had a great evening, he had found himself on terms of almost equality with these Olympians, and, moreover, he was well into his second glass of whisky and soda. And these gods had stooped from the heights of Parnassus to actually invite him to take a hand in the great literary event of the year!

"Well, gentlemen," he said, "you've been real sportsmen to me, and I'm always ready to do my best to oblige. I am downright fond of the theatre, I am, and whenever my work takes me into a town, I always treats myself regular to a bob's worth o' gallery. Not as I cares much for comedy or them shows, which is all music and girls "

"Bit of a misogynist," Rankin suggested.

"That's it," Gipsy grinned. "It sounds a good word, sir, though it never come my way before. But, as I was saying, it's drama as gets my money every time—'Lights of London,' 'The Silver King,' and all that sort. If I were a scholar, which I ain't by a long chalk, I'd 'ave 'ad a shot at it myself. And for a real big thing—why, you've got it out of doors!"

"What do you mean by that?" Goodheart asked.

"The whole bloomin' camp," Gipsy went on. "Here's ten thousand of us, to say nothin' of women an' children, an' we're spendin' a matter o' six million o' money to make these 'ere waterworks. When the great dam's finished, there'll be half a dozen lakes along the top end of the valley, if you understand what I mean, gents. Talk about 'uman passions—why, the 'ole camp's full of them! 'Ere you've got a scene as, to my mind, 'ud take a lot o' beating. Let's suppose for a moment as that keeper chap wot's waitin' so patiently out yonder 'as been made a prisoner there by the villain of the piece. Let's suppose as those detonators is real an' them cartridges is live dynamite. He steps on one of 'em an' fires the dynamite, which blows up the big dam an' releases the lakes. Now, that's wot I call a good scene, if you'll allow me to say so. The villain o' the piece, 'e 'as powerful reasons for destroyin' the dam, and the 'ero 'e wants to save it. Lor bless yer, I've worked out that 'ere thing over and over again in a dozen ways, an' I don't know which is the best. I can see the dam blown up an' the waters comin' down, an' the 'ero an' the 'eroine up there on the top, savin' the situation, if that's the right name for it. I may be wrong, but if there isn't a good curtain in that, then I'm blowed, an' that's the end of it!"

Rankin's face was illuminated with a holy joy. He reached out and grasped Gipsy warmly by the hand.

"The unpremeditated curtain!" he cried. "Always the best, because spontaneous. The problem is solved. Yet what a pity to see so much brilliant genius wasted—I mean you, Mr. Gipsy!"


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