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    Poor Yorick

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    Chapter 17
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    THERE is extant in the city of New York an odd piece of bric-a-brac which I am sometimes tempted to wish was in my own possession. On a bracket in Edwin Booth's bedroom at The Players--the apartment remains as he left it that solemn June day ten years ago--stands a sadly dilapidated skull which the elder Booth, and afterward his son Edwin, used to soliloquize over in the graveyard at Elsinore in the fifth act of "Hamlet."

    A skull is an object that always invokes interest more or less poignant; it always has its pathetic story, whether told or untold; but this skull is especially a skull "with a past."

    In the early forties, while playing an engagement somewhere in the wild West, Junius Brutus Booth did a series of kindnesses to a particularly undeserving fellow, the name of him unknown to us. The man, as it seemed, was a combination of gambler, horse-stealer, and highwayman--in brief, a miscellaneous desperado, and precisely the melodramatic sort of person likely to touch the sympathies of the half-mad player. In the course of nature or the law, presumably the law, the adventurer bodily disappeared one day, and soon ceased to exist even as a reminiscence in the florid mind of his sometime benefactor.

    As the elder Booth was seated at breakfast one morning in a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, a negro boy entered the room bearing a small osier basket neatly covered with a snowy napkin. It had the general appearance of a basket of fruit or flowers sent by some admirer, and as such it figured for a moment in Mr. Booth's conjecture. On lifting the cloth the actor started from the chair with a genuine expression on his features of that terror which he was used so marvelously to simulate as Richard III. in the midnight tent-scene or as Macbeth when the ghost of Banquo usurped his seat at table.

    In the pretty willow-woven basket lay the head of Booth's old pensioner, which head the old pensioner had bequeathed in due legal form to the tragedian, begging him henceforth to adopt it as one of the necessary stage properties in the fifth act of Mr. Shakespeare's tragedy of "Hamlet." "Take it away, you black imp!" thundered the actor to the equally aghast negro boy, whose curiosity had happily not prompted him to investigate the dark nature of his burden.

    Shortly afterward, however, the horse-stealer's residuary legatee, recovering from the first shock of his surprise, fell into the grim humor of the situation, and proceeded to carry out to the letter the testator's whimsical request. Thus it was that the skull came to secure an engagement to play the role of poor Yorick in J. B. Booth's company of strolling players, and to continue a while longer to glimmer behind the footlights in the hands of his famous son.

    Observing that the grave-digger in his too eager realism was damaging the thing--the marks of his pick and spade are visible on the cranium--Edwin Booth presently replaced it with a papier-mache counterfeit manufactured in the property-room of the theatre. During his subsequent wanderings in Australia and California, he carefully preserved the relic, which finally found repose on the bracket in question.

    How often have I sat, of an afternoon, in that front room on the fourth floor of the clubhouse in Gramercy Park, watching the winter or summer twilight gradually softening and blurring the sharp outline of the skull until it vanished uncannily into the gloom! Edwin Booth had forgotten, if ever he knew, the name of the man; but I had no need of it in order to establish acquaintance with poor Yorick. In this association I was conscious of a deep tinge of sentiment on my own part, a circumstance not without its queerness, considering how very distant the acquaintance really was.

    Possibly he was a fellow of infinite jest in his day; he was sober enough now, and in no way disposed to indulge in those flashes of merriment "that were wont to set the table on a roar." But I did not regret his evaporated hilarity; I liked his more befitting genial silence, and had learned to look upon his rather open countenance with the same friendliness as that with which I regarded the faces of less phantasmal members of the club. He had become to me a dramatic personality as distinct as that of any of the Thespians I met in the grillroom or the library.

    Yorick's feeling in regard to me was a subject upon which I frequently speculated. There was at intervals an alert gleam of intelligence in those cavernous eye-sockets, as if the sudden remembrance of some old experience had illumined them. He had been a great traveler, and had known strange vicissitudes in life; his stage career had brought him into contact with a varied assortment of men and women, and extended his horizon. His more peaceful profession of holding up mail-coaches on lonely roads had surely not been without incident. It was inconceivable that all this had left no impressions. He must have had at least a faint recollection of the tempestuous Junius Brutus Booth. That Yorick had formed his estimate of me, and probably not a flattering one, is something of which I am strongly convinced.

    At the death of Edwin Booth, poor Yorick passed out of my personal cognizance, and now lingers an incongruous shadow amid the memories of the precious things I lost then.

    The suite of apartments formerly occupied by Edwin Booth at The Players has been, as I have said, kept unchanged--a shrine to which from time to time some loving heart makes silent pilgrimage. On a table in the centre of his bedroom lies the book just where he laid it down, an ivory paper-cutter marking the page his eyes last rested upon; and in this chamber, with its familiar pictures, pipes, and ornaments, the skull finds its proper sanctuary. If at odd moments I wish that by chance poor Yorick had fallen to my care, the wish is only halfhearted, though had that happened, I would have given him welcome to the choicest corner in my study and tenderly cherished him for the sake of one who comes no more.
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