Thanks to Jarett Hulse!
I had now no further excuse for deferring my promised lecture. The month of May had arrived. My father delicately broached the subject of the announcement. Being a little fractious, perhaps from some ebb in my strength, I hastily replied --
"Announce it for the 30th of May."
"What hall shall I engage?"
"Any hall in Boston. Why not the music hall?" I added, affecting a valor I was far from feeling; but, like Macbeth, I now realized that "returning were as tedious a go o'er.
Mercantile Hall, in Summer Street, was engaged for me, -- it being central, modest in point of size, commodious, and favorably known. At this time I was in excellent health and weighed one hundred and forty-three pounds. But from the moment of the public announcement of my lecture, my appetite for food, for meat particularly, began to fail me.
"How peevish and irritable he is growing!" I heard one member of the family remark to another. Soon the grocer's scales indicated that my weight was diminishing. It fell to one hundred and forty-one, '' then to one hundred and forty, -- then to one hundred and thirty-eight, -- and finally, when the 30th of May arrived, I found I weighed only one hundred and thirty-four pounds!
The crisis was now at hand. Do not laugh at me, ye self-assured ones, with your own comfortable sense of your own powers, -- ye who care as little for an audience as for a field of cabbages, -- do not jeer at one who has felt the pangs of shyness and quailed under the imaginary terrors of a first public appearance. For you it may be a small matter to face an audience, -- that nearest approximation to the many-headed monster which we can palpably encounter; but for one whose diffidence had become the standard of that quality to his acquaintances the venture was perilous and desparate, as the sequel showed.
Never had time rolled by with such fearful velocity as on that eventful day. Breakfast was hardly over before prepartions were being made for dinner. Small appetite I had for either. Before I had finished pacing the parlor there was a summons to tea. It was like the summons to the criminal: "Rise up, Master Barnadine, and be hanged."
Note: From "Measure for Measure" by William Shakespeare . . .
Barnadine: A pox o' your throats! Who makes that noise there? What are you?
Pompey: Your friends, sir, the hangman. You must be so good, sir, to rise and be put to death.
With a most shallow affectation of nonchalance I sat down at the table. A child might have detected my agitation; and yet, with horrible uncertainty, I alluded to the news of the day, and asked the family why they were so silent. They saw from my look that they might as well have joked with a man on his way to execution.
Having dressed and adorned myself for the sacrifice, I returned to the parlor, when the rumbling of coach wheels, the sudden letting down of steps, and then a frightfully discordant ring of the doorbell sent the blood from my cheeks and made my hear palpitate like a trip-hammer.
"Is that the off-officer, -- I mean the coachman?" I stammered. Yes, there was no doubt about it.
Straightening my person, I affected a dignified calmness, and assured my dear, anxious mother that I was not in the least bit nervous, -- oh, not in the least!
It was a gloomy night, and the streets wore a a dismal aspect. The hall was distant about three miles; but in some mysterious manner, or by some route which i have never been able to discover, the coachman seemed to abridge the distance in less than half a mile. We are in Summer Street, -- before the door. Some juvenile amateurs, attracted by stories of the strong man, surround the carriage to get a sight of him.
"Ha! what are these? Sure, hangman,
That comes to bind my hands, and then to drag me
Before the judgement-seat: now they are new shapes,
And do appear like Furies!"
The words of Sir Giles Overreach . . . [Note: from "A New Way to Pay Old Debts" by Philip Massinger] . . . one of the parts I had studied during my histrionic accès, were not at all inappropriate to the state of mind in which, with knee-joints slipping from under me, I now made my way up-stairs. Having reached the upper entry, I paused, and glanced at the audience through the windows, before entering the little retiring-room behind the stage. With an inward groan at my presumption, I passed on. To thing, that, but for my own madness, I might have been at that moment comfortably at home, reading the evening paper! Nay, were it not better to be tossing on stormy seas, driving on a lee-shore, toiling as a slave under a tropic sun, than here, with a gasping audience waiting to devour me with their eyes and ears?
The first thing I did, on reaching the retiring-room, was to give way to a fearful fascination and take another peep at the audience from behind a curtain at the side entrance. I then looked at my watch. Twenty minutes to eight! People were pouring in, notwithstanding the inclement weather. The hall was nearly crowded already. One familiar face after another was recognized. Surely everybody I know is present.
Another look at my watch. Quarter to eight! Suddenly the frantic thought occurred to me, What if I have lost my manuscript? Where did I put it? 'Tis in none of my pockets! Good gracious! Has any one seen my manuscript? Come, Jerome, no fooling at a time like this! Where have you hidden it! What! You know nothing about it? Hunt for it, then! Wound n't be a charming scrape, if I could n't find my lecture? Isn't this it, in the drawer? O, yes! I must have put it there unconsciously.
Being in a high state of perspiration, and wiping my forehead incessantly, I disarrange my hair. Where's that brush? No one can tell. Agony! Where's the brush? Here on the floor. Oh, hes! There!
What a blaze in my cheeks are in! The audience will think they are flushed with Bourbon. No matter. That manuscript has disappeared again. Confusion! Where is it? Here in your overcoat pocket. All right.
Five minutes to eight. Grasping the scroll, I rush to the side entrance. The audience begin to manifest their impatience by applause. Suddenly I hear the bell of the Old South Church strike eight. The last vibration passes like an ice-bolt through my heart. Wrought up to desperation, I thruse aside the curtain. This gives a portion of the audience a sight of me, and I hear some one exclaim, "There he is!' Horrible exposure! I dodge back out of view, as if to escape the discharge of a battery. A round of impatient applause rouses me. I count three, and precipitate myself forward to the centre of the stage . . .