A Star Trap : Snowbound – The Record of a Theatrical Touring Party by Bram Stoker

A Star Trap by Bram Stoker

A Star Trap


Bram Stoker

A Star Trap

“When I was apprenticed to theatrical carpentering my master was John Haliday, who was Master Machinist – we called men in his post ‘Master Carpenter’ in those days – of the old Victoria Theatre, Hulme. It wasn’t called Hulme; but that name will do. It would only stir up painful memories if I were to give the real name. I daresay some of you – not the Ladies (this with a gallant bow all round) – will remember the case of a Harlequin as was killed in an accident in the pantomime. We needn’t mention names; Mortimer will do for a name to call him by – Henry Mortimer. The cause of it was never found out. But I knew it; and I’ve kept silence for so long that I may speak now without hurting anyone. They’re all dead long ago that was interested in the death of Henry Mortimer or the man who wrought that death.”

“Any of you who know of the case will remember what a handsome, dapper, well-built man Mortimer was. To my own mind he was the handsomest man I ever saw.”

The Tragedian’s low, grumbling whisper, “That’s a large order,” sounded a warning note. Hempitch, however, did not seem to hear it, but went on:

“Of course, I was only a boy then, and I hadn’t seen any of you gentlemen – Yer very good health, Mr Wellesley Dovercourt, sir, and cettera. I needn’t tell you, Ladies, how well a harlequin’s dress sets off a nice slim figure. No wonder that in these days of suffragettes, women wants to be harlequins as well as columbines. Though I hope they won’t make the columbine a man’s part!”

“Mortimer was the nimblest chap at the traps I ever see. He was so sure of hisself that he would have extra weight put on so that when the counter weights fell he’d shoot up five or six feet higher than anyone else could even try to. Moreover, he had a way of drawing up his legs when in the air – the way a frog does when he is swimming – that made his jump look ever so much higher.”

“I think the girls were all in love with him, the way they used to stand in the wings when the time was comin’ for his entrance. That wouldn’t have mattered much, for girls are always falling in love with some man or other, but it made trouble, as it always does when the married ones take the same start. There were several of these that were always after him, more shame for them, with husbands of their own. That was dangerous enough, and hard to stand for a man who might mean to be decent in any way. But the real trial – and the real trouble, too – was none other than the young wife of my own master, and she was more than flesh and blood could stand. She had come into the panto, the season before, as a high-kicker – and she could! She could kick higher than girls that was more than a foot taller than her; for she was a wee bit of a thing and as pretty as pie; a gold-haired, blue-eyed, slim thing with much the figure of a boy, except for. . . and they saved her from any mistaken idea of that kind. Jack Haliday went crazy over her, and when the notice was up, and there was no young spark with plenty of oof coming along to do the proper thing by her, she married him. It was, when they was joined, what you Ladies call a marriage of convenience; but after a bit they two got on very well, and we all thought she was beginning to like the old man – for Jack was old enough to be her father, with a bit to spare. In the summer, when the house was closed, he took her to the Isle of Man; and when they came back he made no secret of it that he’d had the happiest time of his life. She looked quite happy, too, and treated him affectionate; and we all began to think that that marriage had not been a failure at any rate.”

“Things began to change, however, when the panto, rehearsals began next year. Old Jack began to look unhappy, and didn’t take no interest in his work. Loo – that was Mrs Haliday’s name – didn’t seem over fond of him now, and was generally impatient when he was by. Nobody said anything about this, however, to us men; but the married women smiled and nodded their heads and whispered that perhaps there were reasons. One day on the stage, when the harlequinade rehearsal was beginning, someone mentioned as how perhaps Mrs Haliday wouldn’t be dancing that year, and they smiled as if they was all in the secret. Then Mrs Jack ups and gives them Johnny-up-the-orchard for not minding their own business and telling a pack of lies, and such like as you Ladies like to express in your own ways when you get your back hair down. The rest of us tried to soothe her all we could, and she went off home.”

“It wasn’t long after that that she and Henry Mortimer left together after rehearsal was over, he saying he’d leave her at home. She didn’t make no objections – I told you he was a very handsome man.”

“Well, from that on she never seemed to take her eyes from him during every rehearsal, right up to the night of the last rehearsal, which, of course, was full dress – ‘Everybody and Everything.'”

“Jack Haliday never seemed to notice anything that was going on, like the rest of them did. True, his time was taken up with his own work, for I’m telling you that a Master Machinist hasn’t got no loose time on his hands at the first dress rehearsal of a panto. And, of course, none of the company ever said a word or gave a look that would call his attention to it. Men and women are queer beings. They will be blind and deaf whilst danger is being run; and it’s only after the scandal is beyond repair that they begin to talk – just the very time when most of all they should be silent.”

“I saw all that went on, but I didn’t understand it. I liked Mortimer myself and admired him – like I did Mrs Haliday, too – and I thought he was a very fine fellow. I was only a boy, you know, and Haliday’s apprentice, so naturally I wasn’t looking for any trouble I could help, even if I’d seen it coming. It was when I looked back afterwards at the whole thing that I began to comprehend; so you will all understand now, I hope, that what I tell you is the result of much knowledge of what I saw and heard and was told of afterwards – all morticed and clamped up by thinking.”

“The panto, had been on about three weeks when one Saturday, between the shows, I heard two of our company talking. Both of them was among the extra girls that both sang and danced and had to make theirselves useful. I don’t think either of them was better than she should be; they went out to too many champagne suppers with young men that had money to burn. That part doesn’t matter in this affair – except that they was naturally enough jealous of women who was married – which was what they was aiming at – and what lived straighter than they did. Women of that kind like to see a good woman tumble down; it seems to make them all more even. Now real bad girls what have gone under altogether will try to save a decent one from following their road. That is, so long as they’re young; for a bad one what is long in the tooth is the limit. They’ll help anyone down hill – so long as they get anything out of it.”

“Well – no offence, you Ladies, as has growed up! – these two girls was enjoyin’ themselves over Mrs Haliday and the mash she had set up on Mortimer. They didn’t see that I was sitting on a stage box behind a built-out piece of the Prologue of the panto., which was set ready for night. They were both in love with Mortimer, who wouldn’t look at either of them, so they was miaw’n cruel, like cats on the tiles. Says one:”

“‘The Old Man seems worse than blind; he won’t see.'”

“‘Don’t you be too sure of that,’ says the other. ‘He don’t mean to take no chances. I think you must be blind, too, Kissie.’ That was her name – on the bills anyhow, Kissie Mountpelier. ‘Don’t he make a point of taking her home hisself every night after the play. You should know, for you’re in the hall yourself waiting for your young man till he comes from his club.'”

“‘Wot-ho, you bally geeser,’ says the other – which her language was mostly coarse – ‘don’t you know there’s two ends to everything? The Old Man looks to one end only!’ Then they began to snigger and whisper; and presently the other one says:”

“‘Then he thinks harm can be only done when work is over!'”

“‘Jest so,’ she answers. ‘Her and him knows that the old man has to be down long before the risin’ of the rag; but she doesn’t come in till the Vision of Venus dance after half time; and he not till the harlequinade!'”

“Then I quit. I didn’t want to hear any more of that sort.”

“All that week things went on as usual. Poor old Haliday wasn’t well. He looked worried and had a devil of a temper. I had reason to know that, for what worried him was his work. He was always a hard worker, and the panto. season was a terror with him. He didn’t ever seem to mind anything else outside his work. I thought at the time that that was how those two chattering girls made up their slanderous story; for, after all, a slander, no matter how false it may be, must have some sort of beginning. Something that seems, if there isn’t something that is! But no matter how busy he might be, old Jack always made time to leave the wife at home.”

“As the week went on he got more and more pale; and I began to think he was in for some sickness. He generally remained in the theatre between the shows on Saturday; that is, he didn’t go home, but took a high tea in the coffee shop close to the theatre, so as to be handy in case there might be a hitch anywhere in the preparation for night. On that Saturday he went out as usual when the first scene was set, and the men were getting ready the packs for the rest of the scenes. By and bye there was some trouble – the usual Saturday kind – and I went off to tell him. When I went into the coffee shop I couldn’t see him. I thought it best not to ask or to seem to take any notice, so I came back to the theatre, and heard that the trouble had settled itself as usual, by the men who had been quarrelling going off to have another drink. I hustled up those who remained, and we got things smoothed out in time for them all to have their tea. Then I had my own. I was just then beginning to feel the responsibility of my business, so I wasn’t long over my food, but came back to look things over and see that all was right, especially the trap, for that was a thing Jack Haliday was most particular about. He would overlook a fault for anything else; but if it was along of a trap, the man had to go. He always told the men that that wasn’t ordinary work; it was life or death.”

“I had just got through my inspection when I saw old Jack coming in from the hall. There was no one about at that hour, and the stage was dark. But dark as it was I could see that the old man was ghastly pale. I didn’t speak, for I wasn’t near enough, and as he was moving very silently behind the scenes I thought that perhaps he wouldn’t like anyone to notice that he had been away. I thought the best thing I could do would be to clear out of the way, so I went back and had another cup of tea.”

“I came away a little before the men, who had nothing to think of except to be in their places when Haliday’s whistle sounded. I went to report myself to my master, who was in his own little glass-partitioned den at the back of the carpenter’s shop. He was there bent over his own bench, and was filing away at something so intently that he did not seem to hear me; so I cleared out. I tell you, Ladies and Gents., that from an apprentice point of view it is not wise to be too obtrusive when your master is attending to some private matter of his own!”

“When the ‘get-ready’ time came and the lights went up, there was Haliday as usual at his post. He looked very white and ill – so ill that the stage manager, when he came in, said to him that if he liked to go home and rest he would see that all his work would be attended to. He thanked him, and said that he thought he would be able to stay. ‘I do feel a little weak and ill, sir,’ he said. ‘I felt just now for a few moments as if I was going to faint. But that’s gone by already, and I’m sure I shall be able to get through the work before us all right.'”

“Then the doors was opened, and the Saturday night audience came rushing and tumbling in. The Victoria was a great Saturday night house. No matter what other nights might be, that was sure to be good. They used to say in the perfesh that the Victoria lived on it, and that the management was on holiday for the rest of the week. The actors knew it, and no matter how slack they might be from Monday to Friday they was all taut and trim then. There was no walking through and no fluffing on Saturday nights – or else they’d have had the bird.”

“Mortimer was one of the most particular of the lot in this way. He never was slack at any time – indeed, slackness is not a harlequin’s fault, for if there’s slackness there’s no harlequin, that’s all. But Mortimer always put on an extra bit on the Saturday night. When he jumped up through the star trap he always went then a couple of feet higher. To do this we had always to put on a lot more weight. This he always saw to himself; for, mind you, it’s no joke being driven up through the trap as if you was shot out of a gun. The points of the star had to be kept free, and the hinges at their bases must be well oiled, or else there can be a disaster at any time. Moreover, ’tis the duty of someone appointed for the purpose to see that all is clear upon the stage. I remember hearing that once at New York, many years ago now, a harlequin was killed by a ‘grip’ – as the Yankees call a carpenter – what outsiders here call a scene-shifter – walking over the trap just as the stroke had been given to let go the counter-weights. It wasn’t much satisfaction to the widow to know that the ‘grip’ was killed too.”

“That night Mrs Haliday looked prettier than ever, and kicked even higher than I had ever seen her do. Then, when she got dressed for home, she came as usual and stood in the wings for the beginning of the harlequinade. Old Jack came across the stage and stood beside her; I saw him from the back follow up the sliding ground-row that closed in on the Realms of Delight. I couldn’t help noticing that he still looked ghastly pale. He kept turning his eyes on the star trap. Seeing this, I naturally looked at it too, for I feared lest something might have gone wrong. I had seen that it was in good order, and that the joints were properly oiled when the stage was set for the evening show, and as it wasn’t used all night for anything else I was reassured. Indeed, I thought I could see it shine a bit as the limelight caught the brass hinges. There was a spot light just above it on the bridge, which was intended to make a good show of harlequin and his big jump. The people used to howl with delight as he came rushing up through the trap and when in the air drew up his legs and spread them wide for an instant and then straightened them again as he came down – only bending his knees just as he touched the stage.”

“When the signal was given the counter-weight worked properly. I knew, for the sound of it at that part was all right.”

“But something was wrong. The trap didn’t work smooth, and open at once as the harlequin’s head touched it. There was a shock and a tearing sound, and the pieces of the star seemed torn about, and some of them were thrown about the stage. And in the middle of them came the coloured and spangled figure that we knew.”

“But somehow it didn’t come up in the usual way. It was erect enough, but there was not the usual elasticity. The legs never moved; and when it went up a fair height – though nothing like usual – it seemed to topple over and fall on the stage on its side. The audience shrieked, and the people in the wings – actors and staff all the same – closed in, some of them in their stage clothes, others dressed for going home. But the man in the spangles lay quite still.”

“The loudest shriek of all was from Mrs Haliday; and she was the first to reach the spot where he – it – lay. Old Jack was close behind her, and caught her as she fell. I had just time to see that, for I made it my business to look after the pieces of the trap; there was plenty of people to look after the corpse. And the pit was by now crossing the orchestra and climbing up on the stage.”

“I managed to get the bits together before the rush came. I noticed that there were deep scratches on some of them, but I didn’t have time for more than a glance. I put a stage box over the hole lest anyone should put a foot through it. Such would mean a broken leg at least; and if one fell through, it might mean worse. Amongst other things I found a queer-looking piece of flat steel with some bent points on it. I knew it didn’t belong to the trap; but it came from somewhere, so I put it in my pocket.”

“By this time there was a crowd where Mortimer’s body lay. That he was stone dead nobody could doubt. The very attitude was enough. He was all straggled about in queer positions; one of the legs was doubled under him with the toes sticking out in the wrong way. But let that suffice! It doesn’t do to go into details of a dead body…I wish someone would give me a drop of punch.”

“There was another crowd round Mrs Haliday, who was lying a little on one side nearer the wings where her husband had carried her and laid her down. She, too, looked like a corpse; for she was as white as one and as still, and looked as cold. Old Jack was kneeling beside her, chafing her hands. He was evidently frightened about her, for he, too, was deathly white. However, he kept his head, and called his men round him. He left his wife in care of Mrs Homcroft, the Wardrobe Mistress, who had by this time hurried down. She was a capable woman, and knew how to act promptly. She got one of the men to lift Mrs Haliday and carry her up to the wardrobe. I heard afterwards that when she got her there she turned out all the rest of them that followed up – the women as well as the men – and looked after her herself.”

“I put the pieces of the broken trap on the top of the stage box, and told one of our chaps to mind them, and see that no one touched them, as they might be wanted. By this time the police who had been on duty in front had come round, and as they had at once telephoned to headquarters, more police kept coming in all the time. One of them took charge of the place where the broken trap was; and when he heard who put the box and the broken pieces there, sent for me. More of them took the body away to the property room, which was a large room with benches in it, and which could be locked up. Two of them stood at the door, and wouldn’t let anyone go in without permission.”

“The man who was in charge of the trap asked me if I had seen the accident. When I said I had, he asked me to describe it. I don’t think he had much opinion of my powers of description, for he soon dropped that part of his questioning. Then he asked me to point out where I found the bits of the broken trap. I simply said:”

“‘Lord bless you, sir, I couldn’t tell. They was scattered all over the place. I had to pick them up between people’s feet as they were rushing in from all sides.'”

“‘All right, my boy,’ he said, in quite a kindly way, for a policeman, ‘I don’t think they’ll want to worry you. There are lots of men and women, I am told, who were standing by and saw the whole thing. They will be all subpoenaed.’ I was a small-made lad in those days – I ain’t a giant now! – and I suppose he thought it was no use having children for witnesses when they had plenty of grown-ups. Then he said something about me and an idiot asylum that was not kind – no, nor wise either, for I dried up and did not say another word.”

“Gradually the public was got rid of. Some strolled off by degrees, going off to have a glass before the pubs closed, and talk it all over. The rest us and the police ballooned out. Then, when the police had taken charge of everything and put in men to stay all night, the coroner’s officer came and took off the body to the city mortuary, where the police doctor made a post mortem. I was allowed to go home. I did so – and gladly – when I had seen the place settling down. Mr Haliday took his wife home in a four-wheeler. It was perhaps just as well, for Mrs Homcroft and some other kindly souls had poured so much whisky and brandy and rum and gin and beer and peppermint into her that I don’t believe she could have walked if she had tried.”

“When I was undressing myself something scratched my leg as I was taking off my trousers. I found it was the piece of flat steel which I had picked up on the stage. It was in the shape of a star fish, but the spikes of it were short. Some of the points were turned down, the rest were pulled out straight again. I stood with it in my hand wondering where it had come from and what it was for, but I couldn’t remember anything in the whole theatre that it could have belonged to. I looked at it closely again, and saw that the edges were all filed and quite bright. But that did not help me, so I put it on the table and thought I would take it with me in the morning; perhaps one of the chaps might know. I turned out the gas and went to bed – and to sleep.”

“I must have begun to dream at once, and it was, naturally enough, all about the terrible thing that had occurred. But, like all dreams, it was a bit mixed. They were all mixed. Mortimer with his spangles flying up the trap, it breaking, and the pieces scattering round. Old Jack Haliday looking on at one side of the stage with his wife beside him – he as pale as death, and she looking prettier than ever. And then Mortimer coming down all crooked and falling on the stage, Mrs Haliday shrieking, and her and Jack running forward, and me picking up the pieces of the broken trap from between people’s legs, and finding the steel star with the bent points.”

“I woke in a cold sweat, saying to myself as I sat up in bed in the dark:”

“‘That’s it!'”

“And then my head began to reel about so that I lay down again and began to think it all over. And it all seemed clear enough then. It was Mr Haliday who made that star and put it over the star trap where the points joined! That was what Jack Haliday was filing at when I saw him at his bench; and he had done it because Mortimer and his wife had been making love to each other. Those girls were right, after all. Of course, the steel points had prevented the trap opening, and when Mortimer was driven up against it his neck was broken.”

“But then came the horrible thought that if Jack did it, it was murder, and he would be hung. And, after all, it was his wife that the harlequin had made love to – and old Jack loved her very much indeed himself and had been good to her – and she was his wife. And that bit of steel would hang him if it should be known. But no one but me – and whoever made it, and put it on the trap – even knew of its existence – and Mr Haliday was my master – and the man was dead – and he was a villain!”

“I was living then at Quarry Place; and in the old quarry was a pond so deep that the boys used to say that far down the water was boiling hot, it was so near Hell.”

“I softly opened the window, and, there in the dark, threw the bit of steel as far as I could into the quarry.”

“No one ever knew, for I have never spoken a word of it till this very minute. I was not called at the inquest. Everyone was in a hurry; the coroner and the jury and the police. Our governor was in a hurry too, because we wanted to go on as usual at night; and too much talk of the tragedy would hurt business. So nothing was known; and all went on as usual. Except that after that Mrs Haliday didn’t stand in the wings during the harlequinade, and she was as loving to her old husband as a woman can be. It was him she used to watch now; and always with a sort of respectful adoration. She knew, though no one else did, except her husband – and me.”

When he finished there was a big spell of silence. The company had all been listening intently, so that there was no change except the cessation of Hempitch’s voice. The eyes of all were now fixed on Mr Wellesley Dovercourt. It was the role of the Tragedian to deal with such an occasion. He was quite alive to the privileges of his status, and spoke at once:

“H’m! Very excellent indeed! You will have to join the ranks of our profession, Mr Master Machinist – the lower ranks, of course. A very thrilling narrative yours, and distinctly true. There may be some errors of detail, such as that Mrs Haliday never flirted again. I . . . I knew John Haliday under, of course, his real name. But I shall preserve the secret you so judiciously suppressed. A very worthy person. He was stage carpenter at the Duke’s Theatre, Bolton, where I first dared histrionic triumphs in the year – ah H’m! I saw quite a good deal of Mrs Haliday at that time. And you are wrong about her. Quite wrong! She was a most attractive little woman – very!”

The Wardrobe Mistress here whispered to the Second Old Woman:

“Well, ma’am, they all seem agoin’ of it tonight. I think they must have ketched the infection from Mr Bloze. There isn’t a bally word of truth in all Hempitch has said. I was there when the accident occurred – for it was an accident when Jim Bungnose, the clown, was killed. For he was a clown, not a ‘arlequin; an’ there wasn’t no lovemakin’ with Mrs ‘Aliday. God ‘elp the woman as would try to make love to Jim; which she was the Strong Woman in a Circus, and could put up her dooks like a man. Moreover, there wasn’t no Mrs ‘Aliday. The carpenter at Grimsby, where it is he means, was Tom Elrington, as he was my first ‘usband. And as to Mr Dovercourt rememberin’! He’s a cure, he is; an’ the Limit!”

The effect of the Master Machinist’s story was so depressing that the M.C. tried to hurry things on; any change of sentiment would, he thought, be and advantage. So he bustled along:

“Now, Mr Turner Smith, you are the next on the roster. It is a pity we have not an easel and a canvas and paint box here, or even some cartridge pager and charcoal, so that you might give us a touch of your art – what I may call a plastic diversion of the current of narrative genius which has been enlivening the snowy waste around us.” The artistic audience applauded this flight of metaphor – all except the young man from Oxford, who contented himself by saying loudly, “Pip-pip!” He had heard something like it before at the Union. The Scene Painter saw coming danger, for the Tragedian had put down his pipe and was clearing his throat; so he at once began:

A Star Trap End

Snowbound – The Record of a Theatrical Touring Party
The Occasion
A Lesson in Pets
Coggins’s Property
The Slim Syrens
A New Departure in Art
Mick the Devil
In Fear of Death
At Last
Chin Music
A Deputy Waiter
A Corner in Dwarfs
A Criminal Star
A Star Trap
A Moon-Light Effect