Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Kate Dickinson Sweetser > Text of Infant Phenomenon

A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

The Infant Phenomenon

Title:     The Infant Phenomenon
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

Mr. Vincent Crummles was manager of a theatrical company, and also the head of a most remarkable family indeed, each member of which was gifted with an extraordinary combination of talent and attractiveness, and most remarkable of all the family was the Infant Phenomenon.

After Nicholas Nickleby, teacher at Dotheboys Hall, quitted that wretched institution in disgrace, because he had resented injuries inflicted upon the scholars in general, and upon the poor half-starved, ill-used drudge, Smike, in particular, Smike stole away from the place where he had been so cruelly used, to follow his defender, and the two journeyed on together towards Portsmouth, resting for the night at a roadside inn some miles from their destination. At the inn they met Mr. Crummles who, upon discovering them to be destitute of money, and desirous of obtaining employment as soon as possible, offered them both engagements in his company, which offer, after a brief deliberation, Nicholas decided to accept, until something more to his liking should be available.

Accordingly they journeyed to Portsmouth, together with Mr. Crummles and the master Crummleses, and accompanied the manager through the town on his way to the theatre.

They passed a great many bills pasted against the wall, and displayed in windows, wherein the names of Mr. Vincent Crummles, Mrs. Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master Peter Crummles, and Miss Crummles, were printed in large letters, and everything else in very small letters; and turning at length into an entry in which was a strong smell of orange-peel and lamp-oil, with an under-current of saw-dust, groping their way through a dark passage, and descending a step or two, emerged upon the stage of the Portsmouth theatre.

It was not very light, and as Nicholas looked about him, ceiling, pit, boxes, gallery, orchestra, fittings, and decorations of every kind,--all looked coarse, cold, gloomy and wretched.

"Is this a theatre?" whispered Smike, in amazement; "I thought it was a blaze of light and finery."

"Why, so it is," replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; "But not by day, Smike,--not by day."

At this moment the manager's voice was heard, introducing the new-comers, under the stage names of Johnson and Digby, to Mrs. Crummles, a portly lady in a tarnished silk cloak, with her bonnet dangling by the strings, and with a quantity of hair braided in a large festoon over each temple; who greeted them with great cordiality.

While they were chatting with her, there suddenly bounded on to the stage from some mysterious inlet, a little girl in a dirty white frock, with tucks up to the knees, short trousers, sandalled shoes, white spencer, pink gauze bonnet, green veil and curl papers, who turned a pirouette, then looking off in the opposite wing, shrieked, bounded forward to within six inches of the footlights, and fell into a beautiful attitude of terror, as a shabby gentleman in an old pair of buff slippers came in at one powerful slide, and chattering his teeth fiercely, brandished a walking-stick.

"They are going through, 'The Indian Savage and the Maiden,'" said Mrs. Crummles.

"Oh!" said the manager, "the little ballet interlude. Very good. Go on. A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That'll do. Now!"

The manager clapped his hands as a signal to proceed, and the Savage, becoming ferocious, made a slide towards the Maiden; but the Maiden avoided him in six twirls, and came down, at the end of the last one, upon the very points of her toes. This seemed to make some impression upon the Savage, for after a little more ferocity and chasing of the Maiden into corners, he began to relent, and stroked his face several times with his right thumb and forefingers, thereby intimating that he was struck with admiration of the Maiden's beauty. Acting upon the impulse of this passion, he began to hit himself severe thumps in the chest, and to exhibit other indications of being desperately in love, which, being rather a prosy proceeding, was very likely the cause of the Maiden's falling asleep; whether it was or no, asleep she did fall, sound as a church, on a sloping bank, and the Savage, perceiving it, leant his left ear on his left hand, and nodded sideways, to intimate to all whom it might concern that she was asleep, and no shamming. Being left to himself, the Savage had a dance all alone. Just as he left off, the Maiden woke up, rubbed her eyes, got off the bank, and had a dance all alone too--such a dance that the Savage looked on in ecstacy all the while, and when it was done, plucked from a neighboring tree some botanical curiosity, resembling a small pickled cabbage, and offered it to the Maiden, who at first wouldn't have it, but on the Savage shedding tears, relented. Then the Savage jumped for joy; then the Maiden jumped for rapture at the sweet smell of the pickled cabbage; then the Savage and the Maiden danced violently together, and finally the Savage dropped down on one knee, and the Maiden stood on one leg upon his other knee; thus concluding the ballet, and leaving the spectators in a state of pleasing uncertainty whether she would ultimately marry the Savage, or return to her friends.

"Bravo!" cried Nicholas, resolved to make the best of everything. "Beautiful!"

"This, sir," said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the Maiden forward, "This is the Infant Phenomenon--Miss Ninetta Crummles."

"Your daughter?" inquired Nicholas.

"My daughter--my daughter," replied Mr. Crummles; "the idol of every place we go into, sir. We have had complimentary letters about this girl, sir, from the nobility and gentry of almost every town in England."

"I am not surprised at that," said Nicholas; "she must be quite a natural genius."

"Quite a--!" Mr. Crummles stopped: language was not powerful enough to describe the Infant Phenomenon. "I'll tell you what, sir," he said; "the talent of this child is not to be imagined. She must be seen, sir--seen--to be ever so faintly appreciated. There; go to your mother, my dear."

"May I ask how old she is?" inquired Nicholas.

"You may, sir," replied Mr. Crummles, "She is ten years of age, sir,"

"Not more?"

"Not a day."

"Dear me," said Nicholas, "it's extraordinary."

It was; for the Infant Phenomenon certainly looked older, and had moreover, been precisely the same age for certainly five years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin and water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the Infant Phenomenon these additional phenomena.

When this dialogue was concluded, another member of the company, Mr. Folair, joined Nicholas, and confided to him the contempt of the entire troupe for the Infant Phenomenon. "Infant Humbug sir!" he said. "There isn't a female child of common sharpness in a charity school that couldn't do better than that. She may thank her stars she was born a manager's daughter."

"You seem to take it to heart," observed Nicholas with a smile.

"Yes, by Jove, and well I may," said Mr. Folair testily "isn't it enough to make a man crusty, to see the little sprawler put up in the best business every night, and actually keeping money out of the house by being forced down the people's throats while other people are passed over? Why, I know of fifteen-and-sixpence that came to Southampton last month to see me dance the Highland Fling, and what's the consequence? I've never been put up at it since--never once--while the 'Infant Phenomenon' has been grinning through artificial flowers at five people and a baby in the pit, and two boys in the gallery, every night."

From these bitter remarks, it may be inferred that there were two ways of looking at the performances of the Infant Phenomenon, but as jealousy is well known to be unjust in its criticism, and as the Infant was too highly praised by her own band of admirers to be much affected by such remarks, if any of them reached her ears, there is no evidence that her joy was diminished by reason of the complaints of captious fault-finders.

At the first evening performance which Nicholas witnessed, he found the various members of the company very much changed; by reason of false hair, false color, false calves, false muscles, they had become different beings; the stage also was set in the most elaborate fashion,--in short everything was on a scale of the utmost splendor and preparation.

Nicholas was standing contemplating the first scene when the manager accosted him.

"Been in front to-night?" said Mr. Crummles.

"No," replied Nicholas, "not yet. I am going to see the play."

"We've had a pretty good Let," said Mr. Crummles. "Four front places in the centre, and the whole of the stage box."

"Oh, indeed!" said Nicholas; "a family, I suppose?"

"Yes," replied Mr. Crummles. "It's an affecting thing. There are six children, and they never come unless the Phenomenon plays."

It would have been difficult for any party to have visited the theatre on a night when the Phenomenon did not play, inasmuch as she always sustained one, and not uncommonly two or three characters, every night; but Nicholas, sympathizing with the feelings of a father, refrained from hinting at this trifling circumstance, and Mr. Crummies continued:

"Six,--pa and ma eight,--aunt nine,--governess ten,--grandfather and grandmother, twelve. Then, there's the footman who stands outside with a bag of oranges and a jug of toast-and-water, and sees the play for nothing through the little pane of glass in the box-door--it's cheap at a guinea; they gain by taking a box."

"I wonder you allow so many," observed Nicholas.

"There's no help for it," replied Mr. Crummles; "it's always expected in the country. If there are six children, six people come to hold them in their laps. Ring in the orchestra, Grudden!"

It was Mr. Crummles' habit to give a benefit performance, commonly called a "bespeak," to any member of his company fortunate enough to have either a birthday or any other anniversary of sufficient importance to challenge attention on the posters, and not long after Nicholas entered the company, this honor fell to the lot of one of the prominent actresses, Miss Snevellicci. Mr. Crummles then informed Nicholas that there was some work for him to do before that event took place.

"There's a little canvassing takes place on these occasions," said Mr. Crummles, "among the patrons, and the fact is, Snevellicci has had so many bespeaks in this place that she wants an attraction. She had one when her stepmother died, and when her uncle died; and Mrs. Crummles and myself have had them on the anniversary of the Phenomenon's birthday, and our wedding-day, and occasions of that description; so that, in fact, it is hard to get a good one. Now, won't you help this poor girl, Mr. Johnson, by calling with her to-morrow morning upon one or two of the principal people?"--asked the manager in a persuasive tone, adding, "The Infant will accompany her. There will not be the smallest impropriety, sir. It would be of material service--the gentleman from London--author of the new piece--actor in the new piece--first appearance on any boards--it would lead to a great bespeak, Mr. Johnson."

The idea was extremely distasteful to Nicholas; but out of kindness to Miss Snevellicci, he reluctantly consented to be one of the canvassing party, and accordingly the next morning, sallied forth with Miss Snevellicci and the Infant Phenomenon.

The Phenomenon was rather a troublesome companion, for first the right sandal came down, and then the left, and these mischances being repaired, one leg of the little white trousers was discovered to be longer than the other; then the little green parasol with a broad fringe border and no handle, which she bore in her hand, was dropped down an iron grating, and only fished up again by dint of much exertion. However, it was impossible to scold her, as she was the manager's daughter, so Nicholas took it all in perfect good humor and walked on, with Miss Snevellicci, arm in arm, on one side, and the offending infant on the other.

At the first house they visited, after having a long conversation concerning the stage, and its relation to life, they at length disposed of two boxes, and retired, glad that the conference was at an end.

At the next house they were in great glory, for there resided the six children who had been enraptured with the Phenomenon, and who, being called down from the nursery to be treated with a private view of that young lady, proceeded to poke their fingers into her eyes, and tread upon her toes, and show her many other little attentions peculiar to their time of life.

"I shall certainly persuade Mr. Borum to take a private box," said the lady of the house, after a most gracious reception; "Augustus, you naughty boy, leave the little girl alone." This was addressed to a young gentleman who was pinching the Phenomenon from behind, apparently with a view to ascertaining whether she was real.

"I am sure you must be very tired," said the mamma, turning to Miss Snevellicci. "I cannot think of allowing you to go without first taking a glass of wine. Fie, Charlotte, I am ashamed of you: Miss Lane, my dear, pray see to the children."

This entreaty addressed to the governess, was rendered necessary by the behavior of the youngest Miss Borum, who, having filched the Phenomenon's little green parasol, was now carrying it bodily off, while the distracted Infant looked helplessly on, and presently the poor child was really in a fair way to be torn limb from limb, for two strong little boys, one holding on by each of her hands, were dragging her in different directions as a trial of strength. However, at this juncture Miss Lane rescued the unhappy victim, who was presently taken away, after sustaining no more serious damage than a flattening of the pink gauze bonnet, and a rather extensive creasing of the white frock and trousers. Her companions were thankful not only when the call was ended, but when the whole trying morning, with its series of visits, was over.

The benefit performance was a great success, and the new actor made such a decided hit on that night and the succeeding ones, that Mr. Crummies prolonged his stay in Portsmouth for a fortnight beyond the days allotted to it, during which time Nicholas attracted so many people to the theatre that the manager finally decided upon giving him a benefit, calculating that it would be a promising speculation. From it Nicholas realized no less a sum than twenty pounds, which, added to what he had earned before, made him feel quite rich and comfortable.

At that time he received a letter containing news of his sister in London, and a danger that menaced her, which made him prepare to leave Portsmouth without an hour's delay, if he should be summoned.

Accordingly he decided to acquaint his manager with the possibility of his withdrawal from the company, and hastened to the green-room for that purpose, where he found Mrs. Crummies in full regal costume, with the Phenomenon as the Maiden, in her maternal arms. He broke the news to the group as gently as possible, but it was received with great dismay, and there were both protestations and tears, while the Phenomenon, being of an affectionate nature and moreover excitable, raised a loud cry, and was soothed with extreme difficulty, showing that the child's heart was in the right place, notwithstanding the constant strain upon her emotions from being so often obliged to simulate unnatural ones.

Mr. Crummles was no sooner acquainted with the news than he evinced many tokens of grief, but finding Nicholas determined in his purpose, at once suggested a grand farewell performance, to be advertised as a brilliant display of fireworks.

"That would be rather expensive," suggested Nicholas dryly.

"Eighteen-pence would do it," said Mr. Crummles; "You on the top of a pair of steps with the Phenomenon in an attitude; 'FAREWELL,' on a transparency behind; and nine people at the wings with a squib in each hand--all the dozen and a half going off at once--it would be very grand--awful from the front, quite awful."

As Nicholas appeared by no means impressed with the idea, but laughed heartily at it, Mr. Crummles abandoned the project, and gloomily observed that they must make up the best bill they could, with combats and hornpipes, and so stick to the legitimate drama.

Next day the posters appeared, and the public were informed that Mr. Johnson would have the honor of making his last appearance that evening, and that an early application for places was requested, in consequence of the extraordinary overflow attendant on his performances.

Upon entering the theatre that night, Nicholas found all the company in a state of extreme excitement, and Mr. Crummles at once informed him in an agitated voice that there was a London manager in one of the boxes.

"It's the Phenomenon, depend upon it, sir," said Crummies. "I have not the smallest doubt it's the fame of the Phenomenon. She shall have ten pound a week, Johnson; she shall not appear on the London boards for a farthing less. They shan't engage her either, unless they engage Mrs. Crummles too; twenty pound a week for the pair, or I'll throw in myself and the two boys, and they shall have the family for thirty. Thirty pound a week. It's too cheap, Johnson. It's dirt cheap."

Every individual member of the company had in the same manner decided that it was his or her attractions that had drawn the great man's attention to the Portsmouth theatre, and each one secretly decided upon the amount of inducement necessary to persuade him or her to make a new engagement. Everybody played to the stranger, everybody sang to him, everything was done for his exclusive benefit, and it was a cruel blow to the general expectations when he was discovered to be asleep, and shortly after that he woke up and went away: in consequence of which, the feelings of the company, collectively and severally, underwent a severe reaction. Nicholas alone, had no feeling whatsoever on the subject, except of amusement. He went through his part as briskly as he could, then took Smike's arm and walked home to bed.

With the post next morning came the letter he had been expecting, calling him instantly to London, and he at once hurried off to say farewell to Mr. Crummles. His news was received with keen regret by that gentleman, who, always mindful of theatrical effects followed Nicholas even to the coach itself. As that vehicle stood in the open street, ready to start, and Nicholas was about to enter it, he was not a little astonished to find himself suddenly clutched in a violent embrace which nearly took him off his legs; while Mr. Crummles' voice exclaimed, "It is he--my friend, my friend!"

"Bless my heart," cried Nicholas, struggling in the manager's arms, "What are you about?"

The manager made no reply, but strained him to his breast again, exclaiming, "Farewell, my noble, my lion-hearted boy!"

In fact Mr. Crummles, who could never lose any opportunity for professional display, had turned out for the express purpose of taking a public farewell of Nicholas, and to render it the more imposing, the elder Master Crummles was going through a similar ceremony with Smike; while Master Percy Crummles, with a second-hand cloak worn theatrically over his left shoulder, stood by, in attitude of an attendant officer waiting to convey two victims to the scaffold.

The lookers-on laughed very heartily, and as it was well to put a good face upon the matter, Nicholas laughed too, when he had succeeded in disengaging himself; and rescuing the astonished Smike, climbed up to the coach-roof after him, waving farewell, as they rolled away.

Some years later, when Nicholas was residing in London, under very different circumstances from those of his Portsmouth experience, and with a very different occupation; walking home one evening, he stood outside a minor theatre which he had to pass, and found himself poring over a huge play-bill which announced in large letters;

Positively the last appearance of Mr. Vincent Crummles, of Provincial Celebrity!!!

"Nonsense!" said Nicholas, preparing to resume his walk, then turning back again, "It can't be,"--but adding on second thoughts--"Surely it must be the same man. There can't be two Vincent Crummleses."

The better to settle the question he referred to the bill again, and finding there was a Baron in the first piece, whose son was enacted by one Master Crummles, and his nephew by one Master Percy Crummles, and that, incidental to the piece was a castanet pas seul by the Infant Phenomenon, he no longer entertained any doubt; and presenting himself at the stage door at once, sent in a scrap of paper with "Mr. Johnson" written thereon in pencil, and was presently conducted into the presence of his former manager.

Mr. Crummles was unfeignedly glad to see him, and in the course of a long conversation informed Nicholas that the next morning he and his were to sail for America, that he had made up his mind to settle there permanently, in the hope of acquiring some land of his own, which would support them in their old age, and which they could afterward bequeath to their children. Nicholas, having highly commended this resolution, Mr. Crummles imparted such further intelligence relative to their mutual friends as he thought might prove interesting, and added a hearty invitation to Nicholas to attend that night a farewell supper, to be given in their honor at a neighboring tavern.

This invitation Nicholas instantly accepted, promising to return at the conclusion of the performances, and availed himself of this interval to go out and buy a silver snuff-box as a token of remembrance for Mr. Crummles, also a pair of ear-rings for Mrs. Crummles, a necklace for the Phenomenon, and a flaming shirt-pin for each of the young gentlemen, after making which purchases he returned to the theatre, and repaired to the tavern with Mr. Crummles.

He was received with great cordiality by those of the party whom he knew, and with particular joy by Mrs. Crummles, who at once said: "Here is one whom you know,"--thrusting forward the Phenomenon, in a blue gauze frock, extensively flounced, and trousers of the same.

Nicholas stooped down to salute the Phenomenon, and then, supper being on table, Mrs. Crummles gave her hand to Nicholas and repaired with a stately step to the repast, followed by the other guests.

The board being at length cleared of food; and punch, wine, and spirits being placed upon it, and handed about, speeches were made, and health drunk to Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Crummles and the young Crummleses, after which ceremony, with many adieus and embraces, the company dispersed.

Nicholas waited until he was alone with the family, to give his little presents, and then with honest warmth of feeling said farewell to Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, the Master Crummleses, and the Infant Phenomenon,--and history has not chronicled their further career, nor recorded to what greater heights of popularity the Infant Phenomenon has since attained.

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Infant Phenomenon