The Young Pretender Extract

In the opening pages of The Young Pretender, the twenty-year-old William Betty returns to the Bath, the city in which he enjoyed some of his early theatrical triumphs.

On my last visit to this city in 1806, the Abbey bells pealed to celebrate my arrival.  A band played beneath my window the following morning and Papa complained that they expected a perquisite.  A lady of rank coaxed the hotel keeper into costuming her as a serving maid and setting her to wait at my table.  I do not recall her name and doubt that she would thank me if I did.  I was fourteen years of age. 

            I am six years older now, ten inches taller, and my voice has acquired that mannish crack of which the poet wrote.  Should my name spark a recollection, my figure swiftly dispels it and I am able to enjoy the diversions of Bath unremarked.  At eight each morning, I visit the Pump Room to take a draught of the water, which I am assured is salutary in despite of its taste.  I tarry while the orchestra plays a selection of German airs, before strolling to the coffee house where I read the newspapers, conversing with my fellow patrons on matters ranging from the war in Spain and the quakes in America to the building of Queen Charlotte’s Orangery.  I parry any question about the object of my visit with a casual allusion to physicians and cures.  We then part company as they make their way to breakfast with friends, followed by a morning concert or a scientific lecture, a game of billiards or piquet in the Assembly Rooms, a ride or drive in the countryside or a gentle promenade in the parades and arcades, while I go back to the hotel to address the business of the day.  

            I am making my return to the theatre.  I have confided my purpose to no one for, while I am assured that the world at large will applaud it, I am aware of those who, professing to have my best interests at heart, would wish me to confine my endeavours to a narrower sphere.  I shall allay their concerns.  How could anyone who has heard the huzzahs ring in his ears seek to dissuade me?  Then again, has anyone ever heard such huzzahs, save those notables with whom my name was once coupled?  In Edinburgh, I was a second Chatterton;  in Birmingham a second Mozart;  and everywhere a second Garrick.  The Young Roscius!  The Wonder of the Age!  A Player Sans Peer!  The Prince of Wales received me at Carlton House and presented me with a coach and four.  The greatest lords and statesmen of the day attended my performances and invited me to fetes and banquets.  Painters painted me and poets eulogized me.  Duchesses vied to drive with me in the Park.  And all this before I had attained my fourteenth birthday.  Then, before I had attained my fifteenth, they forsook me, forcing me to quit the stage when I had barely concluded the first act. 

            My renown lasted a mere eighteen months, but I am determined to recover it.  Thus far I have sought to reacquaint myself with my surroundings.  Every afternoon at four, I have made my way to Beaufort Square to be first in the line when the theatre doors are opened, even on Thursday when the cotillion ball in the Assembly Rooms attracts all but the most ardent playgoers.  I hand over my three shillings at the pay box and take my check, to surrender it moments later at the pit door.  After securing my place, I survey the house.  I glance up at the ceiling, too distant for me to discern whether the winged figures, surrounded by discreetly undraped maidens, are angels or allegories.  I turn to the one-shilling gallery, more mannerly here than in some parts but still inclined to employ the platform as a receptacle for their refuse.  I lower my gaze to the boxes, the crimson-and-gold decoration eclipsed by the jewelled-and-silken splendour of the female occupants.  While loath to censure their conduct, I wish that they would cease – or, at the very least, quiet – their chatter on the actors’ entrance.  I shuffle along the bench to accommodate the late arrivers, whose tardiness provokes protests from my neighbours.  Nothing can destroy my own excitement, not even the pungency that permeates the house during the five hours in which the play is followed first by the farce and then by a medley of patriotic songs.  It is the smell of floats and size and the actors’ exertions and the crush of the crowd.  It is the smell of my youth.